A Love Like No Other
BY Amy Kilgore Mangus
Lendward Lenny Simpson Jr. 66 grew up on Ann Street in Wilmington. Around the corner at 14th and Orange streets lived Dr. Hubert Eaton. The Eatons and Simpsons were family friends. Eaton was a successful doctor whose house sat on four acres and boasted a swimming pool private tennis court and a three-car garage. Nathaniel Jackson lived beside the Simpsons and played tennis at Eaton s home.
Everybody in the neighborhood would go to Dr. Eaton s court because that was like the open place to go Simpson says. Everybody used to gather there no matter what color you were. It was known as the black country club for us because we certainly couldn t belong anywhere else. That was crucial. I probably would have never played tennis if that tennis court had not been there because that was the only opportunity I had to play.
As a 5-year-old in 1953 Simpson says Every day I watched Mr. Jackson walk down the sidewalk turn right and disappear. Then I d see him come back a little later drinking a Coca-Cola. One day I finally got up enough nerve to ask him Mr. Jackson where did you get that Coca-Cola? He said Well I got it from the tennis court where I play. Would you like to learn to play tennis?
What tennis court? Simpson replied.
The tennis court behind your house. Do you want to learn? Jackson answered.
Well yeah but how d you get that Coke? Simpson said.
Jackson took Simpson to see Eaton s tennis court and told his mother that her son wanted to learn how to play. Simpson s mother didn t want her young son bothering the adults at Eaton s home.
He s just going to be in the way she said. Jackson pressed this issue but the answer was still no. So Simpson slipped over the field between the adjoining yards hid under the bushes along the fence and watched.
There he saw Jackson playing against Eaton with people watching along the sidelines. He also saw a woman play.
She was beating everybody — men women young and old Simpson says. It was Althea Gibson Dr. Eaton s ward.
One day Jackson saw the boy under the bushes and asked Lendward does your mom know you re here?
Well you may want to go home.
No I want to stay and look.
This went on for a week. That s when Simpson learned how Coca-Colas were distributed. He explains: If you lost a match six to zero or love as it s known in tennis they call it putting a collar around your neck. And you had to buy Coca-Colas for everybody at the court.
The next time Jackson walked down the sidewalk drinking a Coke Simpson told him he wanted to play tennis. Simpson asked Jackson to talk to his mother about the plan. The answer was still no.
But Simpson told her You can spank me. I m going over there anyway.
For two weeks he defied his mother and went to Eaton s tennis court. And for two weeks he got a spanking every day. Finally his mother concluded if her son was willing to pay the price for disobeying her she would let him play tennis.
Jackson took Simpson to the court every day. Training started with running balls learning how to keep score brushing the court sweeping the lines watching and learning.
I had to have a work job Simpson says. After everyone was finished playing more than an hour or two later he would go to the store on the corner of 15th and Orange streets to buy the all-important Coca-Colas.
Satisfied with the first steps of his training Jackson Eaton and Gibson began coaching Simpson. The three of them would stand next to him instructing him to hit off the backboard.
They taught me discipline structure hitting off that backboard watching the ball back and forth back and forth Simpson says.
They told him before he was allowed to hit across the net he had to beat the backboard.
I didn t realize nobody beats that backboard. That s what it s called a backboard. Because when you hit it it s coming back! Simpson says.
He took on the challenge and says It was two years before I hit a ball over the net.
As lessons progressed Simpson realized he was watching the greatest female ever to play the game of tennis. Eaton was recruiting similar talent in Wilmington. He had discovered 19-year-old Althea Gibson in Harlem New York. She had a poor home life and wasn t attending school. Eaton became her guardian and brought her to Wilmington where she attended Williston High School. He asked Jackson about her. Jackson said You know you ve got Althea Gibson who is probably going to be the next world champion coaching you and teaching you the game of tennis. Simpson embraced the chance to learn tennis from this group and began to play matches against them.
When he was 8 the coaches wanted Simpson to compete in his first tennis tournament sponsored by the American Tennis Association (ATA) at North Carolina College (now NC Central University) in Durham. The ATA was the black tennis association. Its circuit was formed for black tennis players to compete around the country.
At that time we could not play in the USLTA the US Lawn Tennis Association Simpson explains. His mother drove a group of boys to the tournament. He won the doubles championship with Leonard Hawes who was 11 years old. This was the first time Simpson s mother ever saw him play tennis. She cried realizing the talent her son possessed.
Simpson became a standout player. Eaton and Jackson introduced him to Dr. Robert Walter Johnson. For more than 20 years Johnson took young African-American players into his Lynchburg Virginia home. He fed clothed and trained them with his own money on a single clay court in his backyard. On weekends during volatile decades of civil unrest particularly in the South he transported them to play tournaments across state and racial lines.
Eaton and Johnson encouraged Simpson s parents to allow him to live with Johnson in Virginia during the spring and summer months to play tennis around the country on the ATA junior development team. Simpson s mother was hesitant but his father wanted him to take advantage of the opportunity. At age 9 he moved in with Johnson and ten other boys and girls. Johnson encouraged older children to mentor the younger ones. Fifteen-year-old Arthur Ashe was assigned to be Simpson s role model.
Not all racquet clubs were welcoming of African Americans. Simpson recalls Johnson driving two boys and one girl 16 hours from Lynchburg to Chattanooga Tennessee to compete in the national boys and girls championships. But they were denied entry to the Manker Patten Tennis Club. Johnson thanked the club told them he understood and he hoped to see them in the future.
On the car ride home Johnson allowed the kids to express their anger and cry and then told them Don t ever forget this. Use it to your benefit. Learn from this. Because you see what I am trying to prepare you for. There are people in this world who do not want you playing tennis in these tournaments. But this is what you re gonna have to go through. Never forget this moment. Use it to your advantage.
Johnson wrote a convincing letter to the USLTA. The following year the junior development team s application was accepted. Simpson made it to the semi-finals in singles and doubles. Simpson s teammate Bonnie Logan from Durham won the girls national championship.
That was — whoa Simpson says with a laugh. Here s the real problem Simpson says. They took that tournament away from Bonnie Logan.
The racquet club said Johnson falsified her application even though he indicated on the entry form that Logan s birthday would fall during the tournament which could have placed her in an older age group. Ten-year-old Logan had to return the trophy. The following year the team returned. This time all made it to the finals and represented the United States in an international match.
Johnson and Eaton trained their teams to play every ball including ones normally considered out of bounds. They did not want the team to be accused of cheating. This only made them better stronger players.
They were doing us a favor. They were wise. I never heard in my whole life — around Dr. Johnson Dr. Eaton Althea Gibson or Arthur Ashe — one disparaging word about race and hate. Not one time. We were taught how to act. It was all by example. We were prepared to handle what was in front of us. If you could go through their regimen you were prepared to handle anything from a racial standpoint Simpson remembers. It all started with Dr. Hubert Eaton. Incredible man.
After Simpson played a tournament in Washington DC a man who remains anonymous to this day approached Simpson about talking to Johnson about attending private school. Johnson and Eaton discussed the offer and agreed Simpson would benefit from a private education. Eaton knew the value of a good education. His own son Hubert Jr. was in preparatory school in Connecticut. At age 12 Simpson left Williston Junior High School to attend the Hill School in Pottstown Pennsylvania.
As the country desegregated so did the USLTA.
But sometimes the more things change the more they remain the same Simpson says. He recalls competing at the National Boys Championship at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo Michigan at 13 years old. Ashe who was 18 and Simpson were at the tournament alone.
If Ashe wins his match against Bobby Siska from California No. 1 player in the country in the quarter finals he gets nominated to be on the Junior Davis Cup team the first African American ever to be on the team. He beats him and upsets Bobby Siska in a three-hour 45-minute match Simpson recalls.
After playing their respective matches Simpson accompanied Ashe to turn in his scores. Everyone was congratulating him. Then unexpectedly Ashe was notified his next match would take place in 45 minutes.
What? Ashe said. No one else is playing their semi-finals match.
Simpson says But I never saw that guy angry. I never heard him say a curse word. Me? I m crying I m angry. I say to Ashe Don t you see what they are doing to you? This isn t right! This is unfair!
Ashe and Simpson returned to the dormitory where they were staying. Ashe said to Simpson: I want you to sit down I need to tell you something.
Simpson feet barely touching the floor replied Ashe! Why aren t you angry?
Ashe said Here s what I m gonna do. I ve got a match to play in 45 minutes. Do I want to play this match? No. Is it right? No. But I m going to take a shower get myself together and we are going to walk back across campus and I m going to play this match. By the time I come back downstairs I want you to choose what you re going to do. Are you going to sit here and be angry and bitter that you can t do anything else in the tennis world or are you going to let this go and use it to your benefit?
I was 13. Simpson says voice cracking I still get emotional about that. Simpson chose to continue to play tennis and to continue the fight. Ashe lost the match to Eugene Scott but still made the Junior Davis Cup team.
Simpson s career could have gone either way at that point. But because of Ashe s influence his life was changed. Simpson s career really took off when he was 15. In 1964 he played his first US Open the youngest male ever to play at the time. He held that record until 1987 when Michael Chang became the youngest player by three months.
I m 15 playing at the US Open in Forest Hills [New York] where blacks are not allowed to be members of that club. Arthur Ashe had played before me. Althea Gibson had broken the barrier before that for Ashe. Ashe for me Simpson says. I played Arthur Ashe in the second round. This was the first time two African-American males had ever played against each other in a major tennis championship. (The next time that happened was in 2007 between Donald Young and James Blake but it hasn t happened since then.)
Ashe was seeded at the time and won the match.
We were supposed to play on the stadium court but they were running late and we had to play on the grandstand court. To this day I m so grateful because I never would have made it because I was so nervous about playing in the stadium Simpson says. The grand mecca of tennis in the United States. Everything is white. The tennis balls are white. The clothes are white. The shoes are white. All the people watching are white. I m 15. But Dr. Johnson and Dr. Eaton prepared us for this moment.
Simpson would play the US Open again in 1965 winning his first-round match and in 1966. Ashe Simpson and his teammates Luis Glass and Bonnie Logan continued playing other major tournaments qualified for Wimbledon played the circuit and worked to rise in the ranks. Ashe continued to coach and mentor Simpson.
In the tenth grade Simpson transferred to the Cheshire Academy in Connecticut. After high school graduation in 1968 Simpson wanted to attend college at Brown University as his classmates were attending Ivy League schools. He received offers from several schools including Penn State the University of Pennsylvania and UCLA where Arthur Ashe went to school. Brown waitlisted Simpson. But he chose a school that welcomed black players and offered a scholarship — East Tennessee State University. A week later Brown made an offer. But a man of his word Simpson went to Johnson City to attend ETSU. There he majored in physical education and minored in psychology was ranked No. 1 in the Ohio Valley Conference for three straight years and met his future wife JoAnn. He also played basketball for East Tennessee State.
The summer before his college graduation Simpson took a tennis director position in West Bloomfield Michigan. In 1973 he graduated from college and turned professional. He and JoAnn married on June 1 1973.
In 1974 Simpson was the first African American to play World Team Tennis for the Detroit Loves and he qualified for Wimbledon. He remained on the professional circuit playing across the country until 1980 when he left to start a tennis business and a family.
Ashe was angry about that. But I wanted a family he says. Simpson and JoAnn moved from Michigan to Tennessee where he ran tennis programs and clubs and raised two daughters Celeste and Jennifer. The couple co-owned an indoor/outdoor racquet club from 2005-2010. Simpson was inducted into the Cheshire Academy Hall of Fame in 1989 the North Carolina Tennis Hall of Fame in 2011 the Greater Wilmington Sports of Hall of Fame in 2012 the Black Tennis Hall of Fame in August 2014 and the Hill School Basketball Hall of Fame in November 2014. He is also featured in Breaking the Barriers: The ATA and Black Tennis Pioneers exhibit at the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
In 2013 Simpson returned to Wilmington to make a difference in the community like Dr. Hubert Eaton had done years before. Simpson started The Lenny Simpson Tennis and Education Fund and One Love Tennis a nonprofit organization that provides free tennis instruction and academic support for at-risk youth.
That s what Dr. Hubert Eaton did for me. So I m trying to give that back Simpson says. By the grace of God opening up all the doors and a lot of help from a lot of people — young guys I grew up with in this town have been willing to help me when we were not even supposed to be friends growing up because of the color of our skin.
The Lenny Simpson Tennis and Education Fund (One Love Tennis) needs community support and resources to continue making a difference in Wilmington.
Since April 2013 this nonprofit has been providing year-round tennis instruction and life skills/mentoring free of charge at seven locations that cater to at-risk youth. To date One Love Tennis has made more than 10 000 youth tennis contacts.
The One Love program also screened the acclaimed documentary Althea to every middle and high school in New Hanover County reaching as many as 12 000 students with the story of Wilmington s trailblazing world champion. See the website www.one-love-tennis.org for information on how you can help and for details about the First Annual One Love Tennis luncheon to be held in spring 2015.