Dr. Robert Johnson

Dr. Robert Johnson

Class of 2009

Contributor

Career Achievements

Contributions to Tennis

  • Formed the American Tennis Association (ATA) Junior Development Program
  • Served as Vice President of the ATA
  • Served as Tournament Director of the Central Inter-Collegiate Athletic Championships Association
  • Publisher of the ATA’s annual program which was distributed at the national championship
  • Nickname “Whirlwind”
  • Awarded Certificate of Merit by Baltimore Tennis Club
  • Inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 1972
  • Elected into the Mid-Atlantic Tennis Hall of Fame in 1988
  • Recipient of the Marlboro Tennis Award

Off the Court

  • Named Football All-American in 1924
  • Recipient of Atlanta Georgia 100% Wrong Club Award
  • Received the Lincoln University Alumni Award
  • Received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters by Lincoln University in 1971
  • Named an NAACP Life Membership Chairman
  • Received the Spiro T. Agnew Honorary Citizenship Award
Citizenship: USA Born: April 16, 1899 in Norfolk, Virginia Died: June 28, 1971

Pennsylvania-based Lincoln University, the first degree-granting historically black college in the United States, was founded in 1854 and boasts an impressive array of alumni, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, and Dr. Robert Walter Johnson, tennis coach and mentor of the first African-American Wimbledon champion Althea Gibson and the great competitor Arthur Ashe.

Tennis historians have long lauded the noble efforts of Gibson and Ashe in breaking down racial barriers. But without the guidance and encouragement of Dr. Johnson, known as the "godfather" of black tennis, Gibson, Ashe, and countless other African Americans would have been denied the opportunity to play tennis, therefore dashing not only tennis hopes and dreams, but the myriad of personal growth benefits than come with athletics.   

For more than two decades, Dr. Johnson trained, coached, and mentored African Americans from his personal courts in Lynchburg, Virginia. He established a Junior Development program for the American Tennis Association (ATA), worked tirelessly behind the scenes to provide opportunities for all competitors, and emerged as a towering figure in the game’s evolution.

Johnson was inducted into 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. One of Johnson’s non-tennis honors includes being named an NAACP Life Membership Chairman and a recipient of the Spiro T. Agnew Honorary Citizenship Award.

The Dr. Robert Walter Johnson House and Tennis Court is a historic home and tennis court located in Lynchburg, Virginia, that was built in 1911 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. It is also a recipient of a National Historical Marker in Lynchburg, with an inscription that reads: 

“The desegregation of tennis was due in large part to the efforts of Dr. R. Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson. The first African American to earn staff privileges at Lynchburg General Hospital, he also worked to overcome barriers keeping young African Americans out of tennis. As founder of the Junior Development Program of the American Tennis Association, Johnson sponsored African-American players from across the country in tournaments and coached and mentored them on a court here at his home. Among those he trained were Wimbledon Champions Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe. Johnson was posthumously inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2009.”