Black History Month: Sportsmen's Tennis Club

February 18, 2011 05:07 PM
The Sportsmen's Tennis Club, first of its kind for African-Americans, has been nurturing kids from all socioeconomic backgrounds for 50 years.
By Nicholas Walz,
Serving 3,000 youth players each year, Executive Director Toni Wiley takes pride in the work of the Sportsmen's Tennis Club.

"More than half of the elementary and middle schools in the greater Boston area don't have Physical Education in schools - this club is like a second home for many kids."

The Dorchester-based tennis facility has been guided by a vision of tennis as a sport that can provide avenues of opportunity and hope - avenues which should be open to all members of society - since it was founded in 1961. This year, Sportsmen's Tennis Club (STC) will celebrate its 50th anniversary of opening doors to a still-segregated community once deemed to be "too overcrowded, too noisy and too dirty" to be viable.

STC is far more than a tennis club - it was an original, thriving as the first African-American tennis club in the United States. Their youth focus programs develop academic, health and social skills that have improved lives significantly - hundreds of young men and women from the Club have attended college on full or partial tennis scholarships, and thousands more have discovered strength, courage and self–determination off the courts as added benefits of their work on the court. The organization also hosts a number just shy of 300 adults, who find an enjoyable vehicle for life-changing exercise.

Many adult players double as the parents who trust STC to provide a safe and nurturing environment for their children. No child is turned away from recreational or instructional tennis for lack of funds, thanks to the club's policy of underwriting the two dozen USTA tournaments played under the STC banner each year, along with dues from league participation. The costs covered include court time and equipment.
In January, the USTA awarded the STC with a Community Partnership Investment Grant in the amount of $65,000 over three years, as one of seven organizations receiving Community Partnership Investment grants totaling $370,000.

"You'll find people from all walks of life come through Sportsmen's - literally every socioeconomic background you can think, involved," said Wiley. "Diversity and the blending of cultures. That's part of who we are.

"We teach tennis - but we also teach our kids how to get along." 

A decade after the STC opened its doors, Wiley was born just down the street from the club and into a vibrant African-American Boston landscape. The 40-year-old has lived her entire life in the Massachusetts capital with early memories of slow progress.

"You could have called it a smaller version of the Civil Rights movement," said Wiley. "I remember the early days of forced integration in schools - an idea not met easily."

In the early 1970s, the Supreme Court began to turn its attention from schools in the South to those in the North. The justices soon discovered that achieving desegregation in these schools would require different tactics. In the South, blacks and whites had lived in close proximity to each other for hundreds of years; therefore, desegregation was simply a matter of assigning students to the school closest to their home. This strategy did not work in the North because of segregated housing patterns.

As the decade progressed in years, it seemed that race relations remained at a standstill - protestors in South Boston attacked buses, hurled rotten food and even viler racial epithets at elementary school students.

"The rock throwing, it was similar to what people saw in the South many years prior," said Wiley.

By the 1980's, however, increased diversity in Dorchester had prompted community leaders to ask for a significant symbolic change to the site for STC programming: Franklin Field, as the playing area had been known for almost a century, would be renamed "Harambee Park" to reflect the area's African American history and values. Harambee is a Swahili word meaning: "Pull together."

For 50 years the STC has pulled and held together thanks to steady leadership. A 14-person board of directors oversees the not-for-profit outfit, including three members - Conway Haynes, Mildred Jones, and Albert "Bootsie" Lewis - from the founding board back in 1961. Despite what from an outsider's perspective seems an overwhelming player-to-pro ratio - for thousands of players, STC sports just eight full-time staffers - the club maximizes its talent through extreme dedication and availability, closing for just three days out of the calendar year.

Wiley also credits the influence of co-founders Jim and Gloria Smith as crucial during the organization's infancy.

"The Smiths put the club on the map," said Wiley. "Here you had a man in Jim Smith heading into the heart of the black community and the heart of low-income areas, knocking on doors. He was asking folks, many who had never heard of tennis - or if they did, thought it could be affordable - to bring their kids along; that they could have a future outside of this world they survived each day. Kids of all levels progressed under their care."

Jim and Gloria Smith had kept their word - by the mid 70s, Sportsmen's Tennis Club could boast a 12-and-under New England Lawn Tennis Association (NELTA) Indoor League championship team, a 16-and-under NELTA Suburban League Championship and an 18-and NELTA League Champion squad that went undefeated in ten matches. Through the Smiths, a Sportsmen’s USA/Soviet Union Goodwill Tennis Tour was organized in 1989, allowing STC juniors to travel to - and play in - the Soviet Union.

"If there's something people take away, it's that we take tennis seriously - second only to family," said Wiley.