A Whirlwind Event
A Whirlwind Event
By Julian Johnson
Robert W. Johnson Jr. (Left) & Dr. Robert W. Johnson on his court in Lynchburg, VA
Dr. J didn’t like me and looking back, I can’t blame him. He’d begun the American Tennis Association’s Junior Development Program back in the late 1940s to train talented black players. Before Nick Bollettieri and the other tennis academies of our day, there was a small-town doctor with a homemade court who, as a hobby, coached several generations of the best black tennis players this country ever produced. His goal was to create tennis champions who could break down the segregated doors of the country club tennis set. He did just that. I had my own prepubescent plans, which is why Dr. J and I didn’t see eye to eye. My idea of fun didn’t include a pro tennis career or a boot camp training regimen, at least, not as a toddler.
When Dr. J, a.k.a. Robert Walter ‘Whirlwind’ Johnson, began inviting black youth from across the nation to spend summers at his tennis court-equipped house in Lynchburg, Va., who knew that he would change the tennis world? I was only a rumor in the reproductive organs of my parents when Dr. J began rousting kids out of bed at 6:30 a.m. to do sit-ups, push-ups, and crosscourt/down the line drills. The concussive sound of tennis balls striking taut gut strings sometimes woke up the roosters and angry neighbors.
Tennis was Jim Crowed until the 50s, meaning that black athletes from earlier generations were barred from playing in United States Lawn Tennis Association tournaments, including any national championship events. In response to this exclusion, the American Tennis Association was born in 1916, the black equivalent of the USLTA. It provided tennis tournaments and social interaction for black players. The ATA would also provide a political crow bar that would, through the backdoor agitation of its executive officers, eventually help black players gain entry to white tournaments.
My grandfather was a race man, dedicated to social justice. His tennis-related activism came later. At Lincoln University, he became a star running back known for eluding would-be tacklers by spinning and moving like a ‘whirlwind.’ He was a black All-American, but his teams faced ‘colored only’ competition. He was the first in his family to attend college and he wore that distinction with pride, but there was a bitter aftertaste; like most black people with any pride, young Robert wanted the opportunity to play against all comers. That dream would be forever deferred.
Every summer, my dad would drive us from inner city Washington, D.C., to country-fied Lynchburg to stay at Dr. J’s big white wooden house on the corner of 14th and Pierce Streets. My brothers and I would play hide and seek, ripping through the rows of plush rose bushes. We’d play on the jungle gym and toss our kiddie football over and through the lush trees that dotted the yard. We’d stare in awe at the older boys and girls like Robert Binns, Luis Glass, or Bonnie Logan sweating grits and slapping tennis balls hour upon interminable hour. It in no way looked fun.
When my dad started force-feeding us tennis in the mid 1960s, most of us kids fell in line and embraced the family tradition. Not me. I hated tennis, especially the monotony of it. I wanted to run free and play. We had to stand single file on a horrid red clay court on D.C.’s sauna summer days, toting wooden rackets that felt like table legs, while my dad meticulously corrected each of our strokes—that could take a cat’s life because there were five of us. My brains scrambled as I waited impatiently for Jolynn, Eileen, Bobby, and my younger brother, Lange, to hit backhands and forehands to my dad’s exacting specifications. Drowsy and bored, I’d barely listen to the general’s instructions and spray shots all over the court when my turn came. Thank God there were four buffers between his unwanted coaching attentions and me.
Left to right – Robert W. Johnson III, Dr. Johnson, Juan Farrow, National Boy’s 12 Championships, Chattanooga, TN
After undergrad, my grandfather worked odd jobs for four years—coaching football and baseball and handling baggage at Grand Central Station in New York—in order to pay for med school. Funds in hand, he enrolled at Meharry Medical School in Nashville, Tenn., and then completed his residency at Prairie View Hospital in Prairie View, Texas. It was there that Dr. J got hooked on tennis.
Concerned about the fatty tissue buildup around his enlarged athlete’s heart, tennis seemed like the perfect marriage of physical exertion and intellectual stimulation. It was also a sport one could play for life. Dr. J’s progress was slow.
Hitting a hole in football was very different than threading a forehand past a net rusher while keeping that little white ball between the lines. Complicating matters at the start, few players at Prairie View would hit with him, but he found a regular pity partner in Agnes Lawson.
He fed his tennis addiction by devouring stacks of tennis manuals and playing when he could. Eventually he became a serviceable doubles player, winning several ATA mixed doubles titles.
Dr. J began inviting folks he met through the ATA tournament circuit to spend weekends at his Lynchburg home. These informal tennis gatherings eventually became an annual tennis tournament. He spent a grand or two each year on the black professionals who’d bunk on Pierce Street and inhale the lavish spread. They’d sip booze, gorge on food, then play cards until the wee hours in his basement lounge with the neon appointed bar. The next day, they’d play ‘rise & fly’ into the night under the ‘lights bound to telephone poles’ Doc had rigged. Dr. J saw his excessive spending on these tournaments as a sidetrack to his budding mission. What he really craved was the opportunity to nurture young black talent that could compete for national or international titles.
Growing up, we grandkids had Dr. J’s legacy ringing in our ears. ‘Althea’ and ‘Arthur,’ were the names of black superheroes; Wimbledon and the U.S. Open were destinations like Oz, and also white dragons that our heroes slayed. Dr. J had plucked and helped ripen black fruit that others thought spoiled. This was our inheritance and our anvil. How could we measure up to that—to him? My response was not to try. I didn’t care. We’d all started playing tournaments before our heads peeked above the net. I was next to the baby, so my older brother and two sisters were ranked players before I’d spun a racket to determine serve. Echoes of Althea or Arthur were never conjured by my play.
During a 10-and-under match at EC Glass High School in Lynchburg, I became confused about playing a let; when my opponent served, I let it bounce by me and glanced over at Dr. J, as if to say, “Is that what I’m supposed to do?” He pursed his lips like a trumpeter and casually turned away from his bad seedling. Soon, he was off to watch more promising charges.
Left to right – Lange Johnson, Arthur Ashe, the author, Julian Johnson, at the Washington Star Tennis Classic, Washington, DC
Back in 1946, Dr. J and Dr. Hubert Eaton sat in the bleachers watching a young woman playing the finals of the ATA Women’s Championships at Wilberforce, Ohio. She was very fluid, played like a man most folks said. She was as inconsistent as she was physically gifted, but flashed enough potential to intrigue both men. Dr. J turned to his buddy and said, “I wish there was something we could do for that girl.” On the spot, they set about planning Althea Gibson’s next four years and her life’s trajectory.
She slouched off the court that day defeated, but the two men offered her a blueprint for her future. The execution: She lived with Dr. Eaton’s family in Wilmington, N.C., during the school year, resuming the education she’d abandoned after the seventh grade. She practiced with Dr. Eaton and his cronies on his backyard tennis court. Althea had been a pool hall denizen on the streets of Harlem so intensive behavior and character modification was required; Mrs. Eaton spearheaded that effort. During summer break, she left for Lynchburg and Dr. J’s; she played against the college players Doc had begun to surround himself with, a group that would become the junior development team several years later. The two doctors provided an overarching safety net and a foundation for Althea’s metamorphosis.
Monday through Thursday, Doc’s players would drill and play practice sets on his clay court. Then they’d load up the big, silver Olds and hightail it to the ATA tournament in Richmond, Greensboro, Washington, Baltimore, or Philly. They’d arrive in the early morning with just enough time to collapse on the couch of some local black tennis family Dr. J had hustled for a weekend crash pad. Dr. J’s car always brought home trophies; in fact, Althea never lost another ATA singles match, winning thirteen tournaments that first summer of 1947. She also carried Dr. J to several ATA National Mixed doubles titles. In 1956, 10 years after the two doctors had conspired to help Althea reach her potential. She was the number one in the world the next two years (1957-58) and held aloft the champion¹s plate at Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals at Forest Hills, she’d broken the color barrier in 1950.
I don’t know how much of it was parent-induced paranoia, but everywhere we went in our Lilliputian tennis world, I felt people watching us, talking about us. We’d arrive at a white tournament, grab our rackets and walk towards the tournament desk. Strolling through the maze of tennis players and parents, the feeling was like a hundred little magnifying glasses boring holes into your tennis whites, your skin. I’d feel eyes flashing on me, but I’d try not to look. We were freaks, whether we were at an all-black ATA affair or a USLTA event where the only black people were us and the kitchen staff. I felt black at the white events and white at the black events. “We’re Johnsons,” my Dad would bellow at us; we weren’t like other black folks, we were Black Tennis Royalty. And the undisputed king of the Johnson clan was Dr. J.
Waltee Johnson Moore, Dr. J’s daughter & Dr. Johnson
My dad felt tons of pride, but he also had a covert gripe with all the ‘Whirlwind idolatry.’
On those numerous days when Dr. J was tending to patients at his clinic until late afternoon, it was Bobby Jr. on the court working with Ashe and the other six to eight kids who began spending summers at the Pierce Street home.
Dad was often the one drilling kids, altering grips, and demanding perfection. In fact, he was the one who precipitated the second major serendipitous moment in Dr. J’s life.
“Mr. Charity told me to hit it that way.” Young Arthur Ashe was not budging on his old coach’s orders, even as my dad stood threateningly across the net demanding that he change his backhand grip. It was an old-fashioned standoff: the scrawny 10-year-old upstart and the 24-year-old man. He had been at their house for less than a week.
Bobby Jr. left the court in a cloud of dust and called Dr. J. A call was placed to Ashe Sr. to come fetch his boy. Papa Ashe, unhappy and unsmiling, arrived early the next morning for a little backwoods tete a tete. “Son, you’re here because they can do more for you than Mr. Charity could. You can leave if you want to, but if you stay, you have to do everything they tell you.” The intimidated young boy said, “I’ll stay.” Mr. Ashe piled back into his car and headed home alone. Dr. J chuckled years later that Arthur never presented another problem from that day forward. And he ended up staying for nine summers.
Ashe won the first U.S. Open in 1968; the Australian in 1970, and most notably, thrashed the invincible Jimmy Connors in the finals of Wimbledon in 1975. Dr. J died during Wimbledon 1971, but it was another victory in 1960 in Charlottesville, Va., that meant more to Whirlwind than any Grand Slam.
He’d been driving down the road when he observed dozens of boys dressed in white and what appeared to be a tennis tournament. He wheeled his Olds into the parking lot of the venue at the University of Virginia, saw the white man in charge, Mr. Teddy Penzold, and began asking questions. It was the National Interscholastic Tennis Tournament, an event for high school boys that had been held at UVA for several years. “What do I need to do to enter some of my boys in this tournament?” Dr. J asked. Penzold replied, “Just bring your two best players next year. I’ll send you an entry form.”
An entry form duly arrived and Dr. J carried his two best players to Charlottesville for the 1950 tournament. The hour-long drive to Charlottesville, including full green stamp service at the filling station, was longer than both matches. Dr. J’s protégés were “slaughtered.” He and Penzold commiserated, then decided that Dr. J should widen his net and seek the best black players from across the country. For the next 10 years, he would hold an invitational tournament on his home court and take first the two, then four, then six best black players he could find to the Interscholastics. There was an upset of a seed here, a quarter or semi-final there, but no pay dirt until 1960, when Ashe became the first black player to win the Title.
Penzold, by inviting Dr. J’s players to Charlottesville, had spent diminishing sums of personal capital on his social experiment against the ferocious opposition of local whites and alumni. But a black player having the nerve to win their championship was too much for them to take. After a 16-year residency at the University of Virginia, the tournament was banished from campus. The 1961 tourney was held in Williamstown, Mass., minus Dr. J’s cash-strapped contingent.
The white man sidled up to the stern, black man watching matches at the Southern Junior Championships at Davidson College in North Carolina. A small commotion erupted on one of the outer courts. “Dr. Johnson, is that your grandson down there – rolling on the court?” He might have added the one cursing and banging his racket like a deranged coal miner. I didn’t care much for tennis, but I hated losing more. So I acted out like the brat I was. Dr. J was not patient with bad actors and he had much less leash for us. Plus, he had his reputation to protect and I threatened it by my embarrassing behavior.
Dr. Johnson (Left) & Juan Farrow
Black players were lucky to be playing integrated tournaments, thanks to him; at white tournaments, his Junior Development squad was sure to be seen, but never heard. Dr. J taught those first integrationist guinea pigs to show no emotion, never complain or question anything, even to play out balls that were close, to eliminate any question of fairness. White unfairness was expected and was to be ignored. We had to be better.
Dr. J strode out onto my court and curtly instructed me to shake my opponent’s hand and default the match. Then, he led me on my own Bataan Death March back to his dormitory room on the quaint Southern campus. Behind the apparently soundproof door, Dr. J morphed into the evil dentist in the Marathon Man, using cold, medical precision and a skinny black leather belt to skin my legs and bottom to the bone.
Once, my brother Lange and I chased an older player, Michael Ruffin, around Dr. J’s house, through the rose bushes, past the court, along the sidewalk, all for a bite of his ‘Honey Bun.’ When he stepped off the curb, stomped on a broken wine bottle and sliced the bottom of his foot open, we disappeared into a cloud of fear. He limped away and I hid knowing this would go on my growing demerit list. The end was swift. Dr. J had this really nice color television with a brand new remote control. Somehow the remote, which all of kids handled, broke and I got fingered for the crime. (I think I was set up.) I licked my wounds aboard a Greyhound bus, sentenced by Dr. J to ‘exile in disgrace’ back in Washington. God had cast me out of the Garden. Even though I was a tennis rebel, I enjoyed the lush life in Lynchburg and didn’t want to be separated from my brothers and sisters. But Dr. J had reached his limit and I was too much the recidivist handful.
“Dr. J DIED,” I screamed as I raced down the street to my uncle’s apartment to tell him. Whirlwind had been sick for a while, but I never suspected he would die! He was our commander in chief and the catalyst for so many young black players. His last great player, Juan Farrow, who’d been number one in the nation in 12s and 14s, was deprived of Dr. J’s guidance and the void devoured him. Doc’s regard for Juan is reflected in the names that appear on his tombstone: Althea, Arthur, and Juan.
Whirlwind would probably be shocked to know how often I brag about him, telling folks that I was his grandson. Looking back, I’m proudest of the fact that he was no ‘white man’s black man,’ no grinning shuffler. He stood erect and walked with dignity and gravity, but he was no militant fist-thruster, either. He gave white Americans the opportunity to do right by their fellow citizens without rubbing their faces in it. He was a pragmatist who knew the world that he lived in and what it took to get the job done.
Our family often speculates on what might have happened to Althea and Arthur if Dr. J had not been there. If he had never spoken up to Dr. Eaton, would Althea have finished high school, let alone Florida A&M? Would she still have broken the color barrier at Forest Hills in 1950? Would Ashe have left Richmond, gotten his scholarship to UCLA, or played Davis Cup? Who would Venus and Serena, Zina, Juan, Rodney Harmon, Lori McNeil, and all the other black tennis players been inspired by if there were no Althea, Arthur, or Dr. J? One day, my grandfather will exit the shadows and be acknowledged for his selfless commitment that inspires and motivates today’s tennis players of all hues and nationalities.