Dr. Robert Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson was the force behind integrated tennis. As his nickname “Whirlwind” suggests, he stormed across the American tennis landscape for three decades (1940-1970) and changed tennis forever. The former football All-American built a tennis dynasty in Lynchburg, Va. that produced the first two African-American grand slam champions, Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe.
On August 24, 1946, Dr. Johnson and his good friend Dr. Hubert Eaton witnessed the future of world tennis: Althea Gibson. That day, they vowed to each other and Althea to break the game’s color barrier and develop a grand slam champion. They made many personal and financial sacrifices to achieve this end. Althea later declared, “I owe the doctors a great deal. If I ever amount to anything, it will be because of them.” Althea integrated Forest Hills in 1950; seven years later, she won it.
“Whirlwind” Johnson’s grandson, Lange Johnson, accepted the honor for his late grandfather’s induction into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 2009.
Speaking to the Doctor’s will, Lange touched on a variety of topics, none greater than Whirlwind’s belief that “It can be done,” no matter the obstacle. Seeing great raw talent and forming them into great tennis players, “It can be done.” No integration in the top ranks of tennis, “It can be done.” No state-of-the-art facility and equipment for African-American players? “It can be done.”
Three great tennis players’ names are on Whirlwind’s tombstone – Althea, Arthur and Juan. All greats in their own right, all proving that “It can be done.”
Dr. Robert Johnson hosted a tennis camp at his home in Lynchburg, Virginia, starting in the 1940s where he coached young African Americans including Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe. Lange Johnson talked about his grandfather’s work to integrate tennis and his own experiences at the camp.