04 Dec Hall of Fame Acceptance Speech by Lange Johnson
Ladies and Gentleman, honored guests, members of the International Tennis Hall of Fame Nominating Committee, members of the Class of 2009, it is a tremendous honor to be here with you today. This is no doubt a great day for the Johnson Family, but more importantly, this is a great day for the sport of tennis.
My grandfather, Dr. Robert Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson, was a great running back at Lincoln University, about 300 miles from here in the Southeast corner of Pennsylvania. He was also a caring physician, who established his medical practice in the little town of Lynchburg, Virginia. And one day, he decided to turn his passion for tennis into a cause that would be felt around the world.
Dr. J came along at a time when a visionary was absolutely necessary in the sport. To be sure, he was a bit player in the much larger struggle to integrate the American society of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Tennis was one front in that struggle, where young Robert decided to see if he could move African Americans and tennis forward at the same time.
The master plan was hatched in the summer of 1946 in Ohio. Dr. J and his good friend, Dr. Hubert Eaton, were watching the American Tennis Association’s women’s final – the African American equivalent of the United States Lawn Tennis Association. Althea Gibson, a raw nineteen year old, was in the midst of self-destructing against the steady, if unspectacular, Roumania Peters.
As the two men watched, Dr. J leaned over and said to his colleague, “I wish there was something we could do for that girl.” They strategized from the stands as the match wore on and eventually wore out the frustrated Harlem resident. At its conclusion, the two doctors approached Althea and Dr. J asked: “How would you like to play at Forest Hills?” No African American had ever played at Forest Hills, then the site of the US National Championships.
Both men opened their homes and wallets to Althea, in order to turn their vision into reality. They created a tennis boot camp in Lynchburg, VA and an academic and social finishing school in Wilmington, NC. And in 1950, just four years after Dr. J asked “the question”, Forest Hills saw the light and the light was Althea. Althea would go on to win 5 major singles titles during her career – a back-to-back winner of Wimbledon and the US Open in 1957 & 1958.
By the time Althea reached the gates of Forest Hills, a twelve year old boy from Richmond, VA had already arrived at Dr. J’s Lynchburg home for the summer. Ronald Charity, an excellent player and coach in his own right, brought Arthur Robert Ashe, Jr. to Dr. J’s attention. By this time, Dr. J had created the ATA Junior Development program and Ashe became his next star pupil. Arthur went on to win the first US Open in 1968 and Wimbledon in 1975.
Arthur, nor any other kid in the program, need worry about balls, rackets, hitting partners, or entry fees. All that was necessary to be part of this social experiment was to follow Dr. J’s code of conduct, which required perfection: no displays of emotion; period. Balls that were two inches out were suddenly in. In this new world, the misbehavior, or perceived misbehavior of one, could taint the group, taint the race and harm the chances of others behind you. “Those whom the God’s wish to destroy, they first make mad” he would always say. And those who made Dr. J mad, by not following the program, were not around very long.
Arthur and dozens of other youth (some of whom are here today), like Bonnie Logan, Lenward Simpson, Leslie Allen, and Doug Smith traveled together in a caravan of big Buick’s and Oldsmobiles, clothed in their tennis whites, while often being the only faces of color at tournaments in Greensboro, Knoxville, Little Rock or Kalamazoo. The new world of integrated tennis that my grandfather helped forge shone a harsh spotlight on the African American players who went through the cracks created by Althea and Arthur.
A small boy peered through the fence of Dr. J’s court watching, listening, and waiting for his turn. That “boy next door” literally, learned first by osmosis and then by years of training on the same court that Althea, Arthur, Bobby Riggs, Pauline Betz Addie and others had played on. Juan Farrow became Dr. J’s final great student. He was the National 12 and under & National 14 & under champion. My grandfather would not live to see Juan through. I am sure that if he were alive today, that would be one of his biggest regrets: dying on perhaps his greatest talent. Three names are on Dr. J’s tombstone: Althea, Arthur and Juan, proving that his belief that “It could be done” was not only achievable, but repeatable.
The key mantra of my grandfather’s life was “It can be done.” No integration in big time tennis? “It can be done.” No state of the art tennis facility and equipment for African American players? “It can be done.”
If he were here today, my grandfather would survey the game and he would be delighted, as well as disappointed. He would reflect that besides the great Venus and Serena Williams, there have been too few great African American players. But he wouldn’t hold a press conference denouncing the fact, because he was a visionary and problem solver. He would begin by finding selfless tennis professionals and selling them on his vision: a vision of finding the best, most overlooked and underserved talent and providing these youth with a foundation for success in ANY endeavor.
And with your help and with the help of people like Jeanne Ashe, the Williams sisters, Billie-Jean King, Bud Collins, Leslie Allen, Lenward Simpson, Katrina Adams – people who have shown a profound commitment to giving back to this sport – not only can it be done – but it will be done and better than ever before.