In honor of Black History Month, the International Tennis Hall of Fame partnered with One Love Tennis and Cape Fear Community College to display the Hall of Fame’s traveling exhibit, Breaking the Barriers, in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Breaking the Barriers blends a unique timeline of photos, newspaper accounts, and historical excerpts into an engaging, informative experience. The exhibit brings the origins and history of black tennis and the American Tennis Association (ATA) to life while incorporating other events from around the world.
For the first 2 weeks of February, it was housed at the Cape Fear Community College’s Union Station where the public had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the history. The exhibit will be relocated on February 19 to the Live Oak Bank’s Campus for a fundraiser where it will remain until February 21.
Lenny Simpson, Executive Director of One Love Tennis and local African American tennis pioneer, consulted on the curating of the original exhibit that was on display at the 2007 and 2016 US Open. “This is a dream come true for me,” said Simpson. “We are so fortunate to have this exhibit at this time. Not only is it Black History Month, but it is the 100th anniversary of the American Tennis Association.”
The formation of the ATA, the oldest African-American sports organization in the United States, was a direct result of banning African Americans from professional tennis competitions not long after the first lawn tennis court was built in America in 1876. In late 1916, black tennis clubs came together in Washington, DC to provide organized competitive tennis opportunities for all tennis players regardless of race. Without the ATA, there would have been no trailblazers in the fight for equality in tennis - no Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, or Lenny Simpson.
The theme of Black History Month 2017 focuses on the crucial role of education in the history of African Americans. Because of the ATA program, Simpson attended prestigious boarding preparatory schools and went on to graduate with a scholarship from East Tennessee State University where he excelled in basketball and tennis. Lenny broke major barriers when he became the first African American to play World TeamTennis with the Detroit Loves.
Inspired by Ashe as well as ATA’s Junior Development program, Simpson returned to his native Wilmington 4 years ago to form One Love Tennis, a not-for-profit tennis program offering instruction in tennis, academics, and life skills to area youth, many of them at-risk. One Love reaches over 400 children per week at 7 area community centers.
Most African American professional tennis players were trained by ATA Clubs and played ATA Tournaments before turning pro. This list includes such greats as Zina Garrison, Leslie Allen, Lori McNeill, Chandra Rubin, Malivai Washington, James Blake, and Katrina Adams.
Katrina Adams is President/CEO/Chair of the Board of the USTA and is the first African American to hold the most powerful position in tennis in the United States. In support of One Love’s work and the rich tennis history of Wilmington, Ms. Adams is going there to be part of a One Love Tennis fundraising reception hosted by Live Oak Bank, which will also feature the Breaking the Barriers on February 19.
The Museum at the International Tennis Hall of Fame has a number of traveling exhibits in its collection. Breaking the Barriers is among the most popular, along with Tennis and the Olympics, which most recently traveled to Rio and was on exhibition at the Olympic Tennis Centre.