Saturday, December 21, 2013

Breaking The Barriers: the ATA and Black Tennis Pioneers

Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson; courtesy of SFPL
After soccer, tennis is the world's most popular sport.  This fact seems hard to believe, especially given the elitist reputation that the sport has never been able to quite shake.  While the emergence of black players such as Venus and Serena Williams seems like a recent phenomenon, there has been a long history of black participation in the game of tennis.  Recently, the San Francisco Public has sponsored an exhibition on this history titled Breaking The Barriers: the ATA and Black Tennis Pioneers.  It appears on the 6th floor of the Main Branch (Skylight Gallery Exhibition Area, 100 Larkin Street) through January 5th.

Highlights of the exhibition include an excellent documentary on the contributions of tennis professional Don Johnson.  He describes his own trajectory as being one from "Brooklyn to the [Tennis] Hall of Frame."  A legendary tennis instructor and mentee of Arthur Ashe, Johnson has made tennis accessible and affordable to the Northern California youth he teaches. 

Also of interest was the role of the black press in making details of matches accessible to the general public.  Newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier, New York Amsterdam News and Chicago Defender circulated news of local and state matches within their pages.  These facts went largely unreported in the mainstream press.

The exhibit also stresses the importance of historical context.  "Breaking the Barriers" juxtaposes visuals and factoids of African-American achievements in the sport with the more grim social reality of segregation and state violence.

We were able to talk with librarian Kai Wilson, as well as visitors to the exhibit.  Here is audio from those conversations.

Written by Toni

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