Virginia home played role in desegregating tennis

LYNCHBURG, Va. — Lange Johnson has big dreams for his grandfather’s home on Pierce Street — almost as big as the dreams Walter Johnson nurtured there decades ago.

The simple circa-1911 American Foursquare house, with its white clapboard and wood-shingled second facade, sits boarded up, waiting for an infusion of cash to convert this humble house into a museum and tennis camp to honour the late Dr. Robert Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson.

“The last thing we want to do is allow this property to go by the wayside and with it the memories of what took place there.” Lange said. “We cannot do that. We’ve got to preserve it because it’s important to the history of Black America.”

It was Johnson’s mentorship and philanthropy that provided tennis greats Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe the wherewithal to break the colour barrier in the game of tennis and gave countless more the resources to get a college education.

Since the Whirlwind Johnson Foundation was formed in 2015, one important portion of that dream has been realized — the restoration of the tennis court where hundreds of children learned the game and how to excel in a world that wanted to hold them back.

The tennis court, dedicated in 2018, is used by the Lynchburg Parks and Recreation Department for free youth tennis programming. The court restoration was underwritten largely by the U.S. Tennis Association, and Musco Sports Lighting provided money to replace the lighting.

The current estimate on restoring the house at 1422 Pierce Street stands at more than $800,000.

“We’ve been marketing, fundraising, trying to find someone who cared enough about this history to provide the money to get this restored,” Lange said. “The numbers, the estimates are pretty high.”

Lange said the house will need lead and asbestos abatement, new electrical and plumbing systems as well as basement and roof work.

“It’s in bad condition,” Lange said. “It’s boarded up. It’s not in living condition at all.”

The interior, according to the application for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, is the standard American Foursquare style with an entry hall and living room across the front and the dining room and kitchen across the rear. The second floor features two bedrooms and a bathroom, and two more bedrooms were crafted from attic space.

The interior features hardwood flooring, moulded baseboards, picture moulding and five paneled doors with transoms above. The fireplaces featured a simple mantle with a curved shelf supported by round pilasters.

Johnson owned the house from 1933 until his death in 1971 at age 72. The home and tennis court were left to a nurse from his practice, Erdice Creecy, who lived in the home for about 25 years.The house was deeded to the Whirlwind Johnson Foundation in 2012.

“We want to restore the house to its original condition, but obviously better, with new plumbing and lighting,” Lange said. “And then the goal will be to really restart the program that my grandfather initiated, which is having a handful of kids come down to Lynchburg, and train and compete across the country. … When you think about the fact that Arthur Ashe won the U.S. Open in 1968 and no African American male has done that since, my grandfather would be pretty upset if he were still alive.”

Johnson, born in Norfolk and grew up in North Carolina, earned the nickname “Whirlwind Johnson” as a standout football player who was named to the Black All-American Football Team in 1924.

He graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and coached for a while before entering medical school at Meharry Medical College in Nashville; it was at his internship at Grandview Hospital in Texas that he began his lifelong devotion to the sport.

“He was a great football player and, you know, the fact that he was practicing medicine he knew a lot about the impact of exercise on people who started early with exercise, whether you were swimmers, basketball players, or whatever,” Lange said. “… He was also looking for sports where he could have some impact on the community.”

Johnson was recruited to practice medicine in Lynchburg in 1933. He became the first Black doctor to receive staff privileges at Lynchburg General Hospital, and was active in Lynchburg area politics and the civil rights movement.

Johnson also was a leading member of the American Tennis Association, formed in 1916 to promote the game of tennis among Black players, since they were barred from playing in the United States Lawn Tennis Association.

He built his tennis court next to his home in 1941 initially as a means to stay in shape.

“It was essential to have a court at your home because there were no country clubs that would allow access to African-Americans back in the day,” Lange said.

But it quickly became so much more than that.

“Recognizing that young African Americans were not exposed to the sport at an early age and lacked opportunities to compete, he recruited young players of all races throughout the country to play tennis at his summer camps,” the Historic Register nomination form reads. “In addition to coaching these young players, he provided housing, meals, equipment and clothing. As founder of the junior development program of the American Tennis Association, Dr. Johnson sponsored these players in tournaments throughout the states on the east coast. Among his proteges were Althea Gibson, and Arthur Ashe, the first black female and male to win the Wimbledon championship.

“Through the junior development program and the interscholastic committee of the ATA, Johnson helped to recruit promising young African Americans to the sport of tennis and organized a system of tournaments through which they could compete, these efforts eventually lead to the desegregation of the USLTA.”

In 1946, Johnson and Dr. Hubert Eaton learned of Althea Gibson and immediately began investing their money in her career. Gibson became the first woman to play the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association tournament in 1949 and went on to win the U.S. open in 1957, and Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958. She earned a tennis scholarship to Florida A&M University. In 1950, she became the first person of colour to compete at the U.S. National Championships (today’s U.S. Open) at age 23.

In 1951, Johnson opened the American Tennis Association’s Junior Development Program in his backyard. Each summer, about a dozen kids from across the country — handpicked by Johnson — would come to his all-expenses-paid camp. Monday to Thursday, the students trained on the court from dawn to dusk. On Friday, they would load into cars for weekend tournaments.

Practices often were supervised by Johnson’s son, Robert, and colleague William “Babe” Jones. On the weekends, Johnson drove the campers to competitions across the Eastern Seaboard.

In 1953, one of those pupils was Arthur Ashe, a 9-year-old from Richmond. He spent summers through 1960 learning on Pierce Street. In 1968, Ashe became a U.S. Open champion. He remains the only Black man to win the U.S. Open, Australian Open and Wimbledon.

“There were times when I asked myself whether I was being principled or simply a coward,” Ashe said as quoted in Johnson’s page on the International Tennis Association’s website. “I was wrapped in the cocoon of tennis early in life, mainly by Blacks like my most powerful mentor Dr. Robert Walter Johnson of Lynchburg, Virginia. They insisted that I be unfailingly polite on the court, unfalteringly calm and detached, so that whites could never accuse me of meanness. I learned well. I look at photographs of the skinny, frail, little black boy that I was in the early 1950s, and I see that I was my tennis racket and my tennis racket was me. It was my rod and my staff.”

Johnson’s tennis camps not only taught students the game of tennis, but he wanted to make sure the children were prepared for the world.

“He was all about the civil rights kind of demeanour, which was you don’t complain, you just move forward,” Lange said. “If a ball was two inches out, it was suddenly in for their opponents, because you didn’t want to bring any grief or unwanted attention.”

Lange estimates more than 200 players have stepped foot on the courts at Johnson’s house, roughly a dozen players a year for the 20 years he operated the program.

“He was committed to getting younger players on court so he could teach them and train them early,” Lange said. “And then, hopefully get them to the finish line,” whether it be tennis championships or a college degree.

In 1965, Lynchburg honoured the doctor with R. Walter Johnson Appreciation Day, which featured an exhibition match between Ashe and Dennis Ralston, the number one U.S. Player at the time.

Johnson was inducted in the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 1972, the Mid-Atlantic Tennis Hall of Fame in 1988, and the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2009.

Lynchburg’s Johnson Health Center is named in his honour; his doctor’s office stood just a couple blocks away at 5th and Polk streets.

Lange grew up in Washington, D.C. and his family often came down for visits. He began learning the game at age 5.

“I certainly didn’t play my best tennis while he was still alive; he passed away when I was 9 years old,” Lange said. “I started playing really good tennis around 11 or 12. … He would have been backing me tremendously. …

“It was just a wonderful experience to be there in the summers to play on that backyard to this court and play around the city and then to get in the car on the weekends and drive to events every weekend.”

Lange’s father, Robert Walter Johnson Jr., who helped coach the students while Johnson was practicing medicine, died in 2018.

Lange wants to restore his grandfather’s home and his vision — devoting part of the house to preserving this history, and devoting the court to restarting Johnson’s tennis program.

After Johnson’s death, the court wasn’t used and the house and court fell into disrepair.

The property was left to Lange Johnson and his brothers, Bobby and Julian. It was after Walter Johnson’s induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2009 that the brothers hatched a plan for the historic home — starting at the tennis courts.

“(It) really was the launching pad for so many different lives and careers that we felt like that was the first leg of the stool that needed to be completed, followed by the shed and then the home,” Lange said.

A 15-year-old tennis player from Maryland, Corinne Chau, helped toward the fundraising effort earlier this month. The ATA Nationals winner learned about Johnson’s legacy in a documentary she saw about Althea Gibson and felt compelled to help. She created a fundraiser with the hope of raising $1,000 toward the project by reading 1,000 pages. In the end, she raised $3,314.

Chau’s efforts were rewarded by getting to play with Lange on Johnson’s famed tennis court, her shoes touching the same places as Gibson and Ashe.

“He destroyed the stigma of tennis being only for one race,” Corinne said, adding she felt compelled to help because of her love for tennis. ”… Dr. Johnson, if he didn’t do what he did, I wouldn’t be here playing. So I wanted to do something for him and his house and I want to help with building this museum.”

Lange said the Whirlwind Johnson Foundation is actively raising money to preserve and restore the house, hoping to amass enough to start the stabilization process. Lange said the foundation needs an architect and engineer to evaluate the property.

“You know, at the end of the day, my goal is to try to find somebody who’s interested in the story that would be willing to help us,” Lange said.

Carrie Sidener, The News & Advance, The Associated Press

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