Did you know that the very first indoor tennis match involving African Americans took place at a tennis-basketball doubleheader?

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The event was on March 18, 1914 at the New Star Casino in East Harlem. It was staged by the innovative Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn.

People were excited:

“The mere mention of the proposal has elicited great enthusiasm both from players and followers of this scientific and enjoyable game,” noted a sportswriter for the New York Age, “and a sharp and well-balanced contest is anticipated.”

The Age continued:

The big feature is not so much the match itself as is the fact that we are in reality to have indoor tennis, a hope which has been cherished for some time past by tennis “fans.” There is little question of it being made popular, and it will be one of the society attractions of the winter season, and on the tennis court we will find our professional and business men, educators and scholars.

The match had some notable box seat holders, including Mrs. Bert Williams, Mrs. Edwin Horne (future grandmother of Lena Horne), and Mrs. Aida Overton Walker.

These efforts helped pave the way for the formation of the all-black American Tennis Association in 1916, a new organization modeled after the racially segregated United States Tennis Association.

The A.T.A. gave valuable experience and exposure to African American tennis players by providing an organized tournament circuit and formal rankings.

In 1950, A.T.A. member Althea Gibson became the first African American to play in the U.S.T.A. United States Nationals Tournament at Forest Hills. In 1957, Gibson won the women’s singles title at Wimbledon, the women’s singles clay-court title at the U.S. National Championships, and the women’s singles title at the U.S. Open.

Gibson then repeated her Wimbledon and National titles in 1958, before retiring from official competition.

Ora Washington with Althea Gibson and others

The all-black American Tennis Association's mixed doubles finalists of 1947 included Ora Washington (second from left) and Althea Gibson (far right).

The A.T.A. is still active today and continues to identify and train young talent. With a membership of nearly 10,000, it is the oldest black sports organization in existence. Although Gibson was the association’s first major tennis success story, the A.T.A. can boast of many more modern day successes that went through its ranks, including Arthur Ashe.

Let’s bring this back to the real court game. :-)

Gibson’s first love was basketball, and she attended Florida A&M on a tennis and basketball scholarship. She even played briefly for a New York semi-pro basketball team called the Mysterious Girls.

In turn, Ora Mae Washington — arguably the greatest female basketball player and tennis player of all time — paved the way for Gibson on both courts.

(A.T.A. photo courtesy of the R.S. Darnaby Collections, Tuskegee University Archives.)