1422 Pierce Street, the former home of Dr. R. Walter Johnson, the man who has been credited with integrating the game of tennis, sits quietly now. In the forties and fifties, the home was a social hub. During a time when it could be difficult for travelling African Americans to secure traditional lodging, Dr. Johnson opened his doors to others in need of a place to stay. Some of his more prominent visitors included: Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Jackie Robinson, and Roy Campanella. Ultimately it would be his summer guests, black youth, hand selected because of their potential to become great tennis players, who would become his most notable. Tennis legends, Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe were among the many youth who spent their summers training there.
Having learned the game later in life, Dr. Johnson focused on introducing young, African American boys and girls to the game. Using his own money, he built a clay court complete with spectator stands on the property adjacent to his home. He invited those he identified as having potential to spend the summer training there. Doctor Johnson gave generously of his time, money, and sweat for these youth. Never asking for payment, his only request was that they give their best effort and abide by his rules. Everyone had a chore and if he told you to sweep the floor or pull weeds then that is what you needed to do; no excuses. If you couldn’t abide by the rules then you were quickly sent home. During the day, Dr. Johnson was busy with his medical practice but left clear instructions for each camper. When he returned in the evening, he evaluated their progress as they played matches late into the evening. On weekends he loaded the campers into his car and headed off to play tournaments.
Driving through Charlottesville, he noticed a sign for the Interscholastic Tennis Championship at the University of Virginia. Unable to resist, Dr. Johnson stopped and watched in amazement at the caliber of the high school players. It was at this moment Dr. Johnson began the process of integrating blacks into competitive tennis. He approached the director, Teddy Penzold, and introduced himself. He explained that he had a tennis court at his home and trained young blacks and dreamed of seeing them compete with the best. At a time when “separate but equal” was still the norm, it was surprising that Penzold allowed Johnson to send his best players to next year’s tournament. In the summer of 1951 he sent his best two players, Victor Miller and Roosevelt Megginson. They were annihilated in the first round but they became the first blacks to compete in a national high school event. Encouraged, Dr. Johnson created what would become American Tennis Association’s Youth Development League. The league had chapters across the US and in the coming summers a national championship for blacks. The winner of this tournament was invited to compete in Charlottesville and slowly the color of tennis changed.
Dr. Johnson’s protégé, Arthur Ashe, competed there and went on to change the world of tennis by being the first black member of the US Davis Cup team. Later Ashe became the first black male to win a singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open, the Australian Open, and the first black American to be ranked number 1 in the world. Ashe always credited Doctor Johnson and the summers he trained in Lynchburg.
By Wanda Carpenter
Lynchburg Museum Staff