HISTORIC WILMINGTON TENNIS COURT REOPENED
THE nonprofit organization One
Love Tennis is renovating the
house and property purchased
in 2018 that once belonged to Dr. Hubert
Eaton Sr., mentor to tennis great Althea
Gibson, to be a safe haven providing ten-nis
instruction and academic support to
Lenny and JoAnn Simpson,
founders of One Love Tennis,
celebrated the ribbon-cutting on the
newly restored tennis court at the
historic former Dr. Hubert Eaton Sr.
home at 1406 Orange St.
on April 16, 2019.
at-risk youth. The exterior was the first
priority, the tennis court was second. The
interior is next up, which will host the
academic enrichment program for 12- to
18-year old youths.
Lendward “Lenny” Simpson Jr., a
Wilmington native and Wrightsville Beach
resident, grew up nearby on Ann Street. On
the corner of 14th and Orange streets lived
Dr. Hubert Eaton. Eaton was a successful
doctor whose house sat on four acres and
boasted a swimming pool, private tennis
court and three-car garage. The Eatons and
Simpsons were family friends. Nathaniel Jackson lived beside the
Simpsons and played tennis on Eaton’s tennis court.
Simpson slipped over the field between the adjoining yards,
hid under the bushes along the fence and watched as Jackson
played Eaton with people along the sidelines watching. He also
saw a woman play. She was beating everybody — men, women,
young and old. It was Althea Gibson, Eaton’s ward.
One day, Jackson saw the little boy under the bushes and
asked, “Lendward, does your mom know you’re here?” No, and
she did not give her permission. For two weeks, Simpson defied
his mother and went to the tennis court. And for two weeks, he
got a spanking every day. Finally, his mother concluded that,
if her son was willing to pay the price for disobeying her, she
would let him play tennis.
As a 5-year-old in 1953, Simpson’s daily training started with
running balls, learning how to keep score, brushing the court,
sweeping the lines, watching and learning.
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 live at his home. She attended
Williston High School.
When he was 8, Simpson began to
compete. 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 tour-naments
across state and racial lines. At
age 9, Simpson moved in with Johnson
and 10 other boys and girls. Fifteen-year-
old Arthur Ashe was assigned to be
Simpson’s role model.
Althea Gibson with her mentor Dr. Hubert
Eaton Sr., 1985.
In 1968 Simpson played his first US Open, the youngest male
ever to play at the time. He 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.)
“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. 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.
At Brown University he met his future wife, JoAnn; they mar-ried
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.
COURTESY OF STAR NEWS ARCHIVES
WBM june 2019
NEW HANOVER COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY