Making History: An Interview with Arthur Carrington

February 26, 2011 11:55 PM
Art Carrington (right) went from a tiny, two-court club in Elizabeth, N.J., to playing for a National Championship within five years.
Arthur Ashe (middle) and Carrington (right) remained friends and hitting partners for decades.
Carrington's book represents a lifetime's worth of research into how his tennis existence came to fruition.
By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com
 
USTA.com sat down with former American Tennis Association (ATA) National Champion Arthur Carrington, who recently wrote "Black Tennis: An Archival Collection Between 1890 and 1962," a historical look the ATA and the pioneer period for African-American tennis at large. Involved in the game for more than five decades, Carrington runs the Arthur Carrington Tennis Academy in Amherst, Mass., teaching some of the highest-ranked juniors in both New England and the entire nation. 

Perhaps Carrington’s only obsession on par with teaching tennis is educating himself – his book represents nearly 25 years of intensive research, compiling media from all over the country to better understand how he came into a life of tennis.
 
USTA.com: Why take on such a project?
 
Arthur Carrington: Tennis has been my life, all my life. People of all colors ask me: "How did you get started in tennis?" I tell them about my local club growing up – the North End Club in Elizabeth, N.J. – and the ATA. From there, it led to me thinking of the idea of putting together an exhibit in the early '80s with my collected materials over the years so people could see where I came from. The exhibit eventually turned into the book you see today.
 
USTA.com: Do you consider yourself more historian than author?
 
AC: Absolutely. I was familiar and comfortable with the research process because I was a history major in college. I was a tennis player, but history and black history were just as important. Putting the two together was a natural.
 
USTA.com: When did you finally begin to evolve from exhibit to book?
 
AC: It was always working in motion towards something larger. I started collecting and compiling in 1985, and by 1995, I was really in full swing. Fortunately, living in Amherst affords you many options: Amherst College, UMass and Mount Holyoke, in addition to findings made at Hampton University, my alma mater. I had access to great libraries and microfilm, microfiche – really, just some great facilities for the type of research I was looking to do.
 
USTA.com: From the quick math, this book then took over two decades to complete. You mention use of microfilm. Did Internet research help fill in the blanks as newer technology became available?
 
AC: (Laughs) No, no Internet. I’m old school. I’d go down in the basement of the schools and sit rolling the film for hours. I eventually got the knack of it. At first, I was being naïve, starting off with The New York Times and different mainstream magazines. Then I said to myself, "Art, come on. We – African-Americans – weren’t even carried in those publications at the time, when it came to sports."
 
It was when I wised up and went to the Afro-American, the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier – black local newspapers, but with extremely wide readerships – when I began to really supplement with the brochures and various materials I already had in my possession from years of collecting.
 
USTA.com: Were you aware of these publications growing up?
 
AC: Yeah, we always had the Afro-American newspaper come to my house, along with the Amsterdam News. They were the main black publications we had. When it came to researching for my own tennis project, like I said, I didn’t at first connect what I should have immediately known, and that was that black newspapers and magazines held the real fruit. The traditional research books and materials were quickly switched out.
 
USTA.com: An idea that comes out of this book is that tennis was one of the earliest sports in America celebrated and even perfected by black athletes – well before basketball even.
 
AC: The thing that amazes everyone is that tennis was built so large from the small black clubs. I lived in a Jersey neighborhood with two courts and a picnic area. Then, maybe 15 minutes away in Scotch Plains, there was the Shady Rest Country Club, with nine courts and a stadium court, along with a beautiful golf course, villas, croquet and skeet shooting. Most people don’t realize or associate these types of activities or areas with African-Americans. They aren’t aware of a black middle class and what that class would do for recreation or how people, such as Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson or myself, could live close to where affluent black people enjoyed sports. There were black doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers, funeral parlor owners – what you would call status people.
 
USTA.com: And that’s how you got into tennis, as a club kid in Elizabeth. Can you speak more to what it was like growing up with the game, your journey?
 
AC: My mother had been a member as a teenager – the North End Tennis Club was right on the border of where the black neighborhood began and the white neighborhood ended. The story was that our two courts were part of the backyard of a mansion at one time, around 1900. The owner eventually sold the land to the blacks that would play on the courts, and that’s how the club was started.
 
When my brother, myself and friends would go to the playground, we’d always pass the tennis courts and see people having cookouts. In the parking lots, there were Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs – an affluent vibe but a strong community feel. Sydney Llewellyn, who was Althea’s coach, would be there and offer the kids some basic instruction. This is when I was about 10 or 11 years old. Being around it helped me grow. I stayed with tennis into high school and was undefeated in my junior and senior years, in addition to playing varsity basketball. Since I went to high school between 1962 and 1965, being a good player afforded me the opportunity to play at all the best clubs in New Jersey, some where blacks weren’t normally allowed. I then received a tennis scholarship to Hampton and got a great education in the process.
 
Above all, it was my exposure to the American Tennis Association – an organization associated with what we called the "black intelligentsia" in the old days. The players were smart, driven to be the best and were extremely talented. My world just opened up from tennis. Tennis was like wings for me. Once I had the skills, I could go wherever I wanted to and fly with my racquet pretty far out – at least on the East Coast. (Laughs)
 
USTA.com: Do you consider winning the ATA National Championship in 1973 the apex of your tennis career?
 
AC: As a player, that’s what everyone who grew up with the ATA wanted to accomplish. Once we got into the early '70s, when I had my win, the landscape was changing, and black players were more integrated in events with white players. It was something that I strived for to achieve and, historically, it was an honor to hold that title.
 
USTA.com: There are great clippings and snapshots collected in this book, and you weave in the personal and historical perspective so well. It was interesting that you had strong friendships with Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson.
 
AC: I met Arthur when I was a junior player – about 14 years of age – and seeing as he spent most of his adult life in and around New York, I was almost always in touch with him right until he passed away. After I got a little older and graduated college, he would invite me to practice with him frequently and play in exhibitions.
 
As for Althea, like I said, her coach was the one that started me in tennis. I thought she was incredible. When I started in 1957, a black woman was No. 1 in the world in tennis, and Arthur was on his way! For me, tennis was a black sport. Going back to what I said about how people are shocked that someone like me – a player now for over 50 years – got into a game that is historically perceived as catering to well-to-do whites, it always amazes me, in turn. I didn’t see any white tennis players for a long time. All the players I saw and looked up to were black.
 
The idea goes back to the ATA, as well. The National Championships were always held on college campuses. Arthur, Althea, myself, all who played – there was nothing like that camaraderie of going to nationals. That neighborhood feeling never left. I went to college, and I’m a tennis pro now because I went to nationals at the age of 15 and fell in love with that life: I liked the campus, I liked the cafeteria, I liked the safety. I’m an inner-city boy. Tennis was a safe environment where I could always feel secure, whether with the ATA or USTA. It was a great way to grow up.
 
USTA.com: Your look at black tennis history spans so many decades, from the 1890s through the '60s and touching on the '70s a bit. Is there one decade that sticks out to you where you said, "That’s where black tennis boomed?"
 
AC: Well, let me bring you back. I realized the life that I live as one of unusual opportunity through tennis. When you start talking about tennis in 1890, most African Americans were living in the rural South – segregation, without much recreation. Or education.
 
Knowing how I got into tennis doesn’t simply start from the personal – it's also born from the history of the 1920s and '30s with Jim Crow laws at their height. Black elites were living in Atlanta and taking their lives to new heights – Spellman College, Morehouse College – and still they couldn’t participate in most recreation. They couldn’t go to parks, or if they were allowed, it was for two hours, once a week, on the day white people didn’t want to use it. No matter how educated a black man or woman could get in school, they would always have to return back socially into segregation.
 
Thus, they had to build recreation areas or acquire them any way they could. It brought folks together into community, united so they could play and their kids could then play. Our small tennis clubs that came out of those efforts produced two world champions – Althea and Arthur. Now, the North End Club is no longer there in my hometown. There will never be another generation of Art Carringtons or kids who grew up in an environment where the black community centered around tennis.
 
USTA.com: When the book was published a year ago, you made it clear that it was comprehensive but still a work in progress. You asked readers explicitly to send in whatever additional materials they could. Since then, what else have you acquired?
 
AC: It's great, the response. A person who sticks out in my mind as being really helpful in what will be the second edition of the book has been a man by the name of Richard Hillway, who has sent my book over to the Wimbledon Library in London. He’s become a fast friend, a pen pal. Through our correspondence, he sent me a 1924 ATA brochure. I had 1928 and 1929, but this obviously goes back even further. It's sad to me that the people over there have little, if any, knowledge of the American Tennis Association. By comparison, there’s a rich and celebrated history of the Negro Leagues in baseball. People in this country and around the world who know anything about baseball know that Jackie Robinson came from the Negro Leagues. How many people know that Althea and Arthur came from the ATA, and not only that, but that no other sport was as organized and provided structure for success for African Americans like tennis? 
 
The ATA is still functioning today. Staying in contact with them and hearing what they say about the book, I know about the concern of trying to get the ATA back to where it used to be. I’ll tell them that the people atop the ATA were the black elite. You can’t replace that with somebody who is just a nice volunteer. And that’s not to put down volunteerism, but at the end of the day, you need resources, and you need the connections that come from high-caliber leadership. By looking at history, it's plain to see what made the organization great – the local clubs, which were led by the black elite.
 
USTA.com:  When should we expect a revised edition of the book?
 
AC: There will definitely be a second edition. I’ve got a lot of good, new stuff. I can’t say definitively, but I can tell you that it won’t be long.
 
For more information about Art Carrington and his exhibits, check out www.artcarrington.com.
 

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