Bouncing Back From Bias The Country's Oldest Black-owned Tennis Club Was Born Out Of Racism. Now, The Phila. Tennis Club Thrives.

Posted: July 22, 2000

When Althea Gibson clinched her second consecutive Wimbledon championship in 1958, the founders of the Philadelphia Tennis Club in Germantown were already volleying to each other.

Their rackets were worn by the time Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon in 1975.

Now, both of the Williams sisters have captured major tournament titles - Venus became Queen of Wimbledon on July 8, Serena won the U.S. Open last year. And this tennis club has been there through it all.

Unable to gain admission to exclusive country clubs in the 1950s because they were black, a group of tennis-playing friends formed their own club.

"These [country] clubs insisted on all-white attire," said Walter Moore, 70, chairman of the Philadelphia Tennis Club who lives in Penllyn, Montgomery County. "But when they put up their signs that said 'white only,' it meant 'Whites only.' "

So around 1955, about 40 blacks got together in Germantown's Clark Field to play. Three years later, they moved to Germantown Friends School and leased six clay courts.

In May 1959, the Philadelphia Tennis Club was incorporated with 18 members and is now the country's oldest, independent, black-owned tennis club, members said. Although its membership is traditionally black, the club has open admission. Six founding members are still alive including John Manns, who at 82, is still playing.

Manns, who lives in West Philadelphia, remembers when de facto segregation kept blacks away from many mainstream sports and facilities. He and a friend were once denied use of a shower in a Philadelphia rifle club because of their race. The words of a white worker at the club still burn his ears: "'We don't have any shower for you in here.' "

Their entries to tennis invitationals were also often denied, Manns said.

"Every time some of us tried to enter a tournament here, we were turned down," he said. And that was why the American Tennis Association, the country's oldest black sports organization, was formed in 1916, he said. That way, blacks could compete amongst themselves. The Philadelphia Tennis Club, part of the ATA, furthered that goal.

After collecting a $5 joining fee and $10 a month in dues from members, the tennis club had saved enough money to buy some land by 1965. They purchased a plot on East Locust Avenue in Germantown, where the club has remained ever since.

Members built the five clay courts there themselves and opened the property in 1967. Years later, the group bought a house at 422 E. Locust Ave., adjacent to their clay courts, and made it a clubhouse. They later bought additional property and built three hard courts.

Not only did members buy and build the club, they maintained it. Moore has done everything including painting the lines on the court, installing the nets, refereeing matches, working as a ballboy, and serving as club president, twice.

The reason the members are so into the club is simple to Brenda Neurell, a 60-year-old Germantown resident who started playing with the junior club for 12- to 14-year-olds: "I love the game," said Neurell, who plays two to three times a day at the tennis club.

But loving the game, initially, was not an easy task. In addition to facing race discrimination, some of the men were also ridiculed for playing a "sissy sport."

"It didn't bother me, I was confident with what I was doing," Moore said.

Kahlil Cunningham, an 11-year-old from West Oak Lane, said that at first he didn't like tennis and felt some of the same peer pressure as Moore. "[My friends] laugh when I come home with a tennis racket in my hand," he said.

"But now I like the excitement and the disappointment, too. Learning from your mistakes," said Cunningham, who sometimes plays with his older brother.

With support from family members interested in tennis, they said, children are more likely to do well. The club offers family membership and fees.

"When you have that parental support system, it can produce champions such as Venus and Serena," said Charles Massey, 79, who lives in Mount Airy and was president of the tennis club from 1959 to 1989.

Joseph Clear, 13, just started playing at the tennis club last week but also plays in the winter with the Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis Center in Manayunk. He said his mother started him swinging rackets before he could walk.

"I want to be the next Arthur Ashe," he said. "I know that he was the greatest, he had the fastest serves."

Clear, who says he is good at most aspects of tennis, looks up to the Williamses.

"We were screaming when we saw them win it," said Clear, who watched Wimbledon on a TV at church with his older brother, who also plays. "I want to win at Wimbledon. Seeing it gave me hope that I can win," the Cheltenham resident said.

Just mentioning Venus and Serena Williams makes West Philadelphia native Julianne Brooks, 16, feel that the sport is open to people of color. Brooks, who is a junior instructor, said she saw that tennis is "not just a white sport. I thought if they could do it, I could do it."

Inside the clubhouse, a poster of Venus and Serena, with their hair beads flying, adorns the wall. Moore plans to post pictures of the sisters at Wimbledon and after they compete in the U.S. Open next month.

"I'm hoping that they [the Williams sisters] get the opportunity to be the spokespersons for the companies and the kids will see that and get involved," he said.

Sufiya Abdur-Rahman's e-mail address is srahman@phillynews.com

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