The demise of the ATA

Illustration by Mark Smith

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 16 Gambling Issue. Subscribe today!

IN THE OLD days, Art Carrington would have been called a race man. He revives names that history has forgotten: Talley Holmes, the Dartmouth mathematician who in 1916 co-founded the American Tennis Association because the National Tennis Association (now the USTA) prohibited African-Americans. Dr. Robert Johnson, the ATA innovator who introduced so many generations to tennis that he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Jimmy McDaniel, the ATA champion who played against Don Budge in 1940 the way Negro Leagues baseball teams played exhibitions with white big leaguers. These are his people, too accomplished to be erased. This is his history, too important to be diminished. The ATA came before the Negro Leagues and the Harlem Renaissance. It was an extension of W.E.B. Du Bois' vision of the "talented tenth," of African-Americans embodying upward aspiration.

Johnson developed Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, who in 1973 became the first African-American to join the men's tennis tour. Carrington, Ashe's practice partner, soon played on the tour as well. Current USTA president Katrina Adams first competed in the ATA. Composed of regional clubs along the East Coast that played one another in black-only tournaments, it was a testament to the athletic skill, buying power and ambition of the segregated black middle class. Today, Carrington, now 68, is a member of the New England Tennis Association (NETA), ATA-affiliated since 1925, and runs his Arthur Carrington Tennis Academy in the tradition of Du Bois. Yet at a time when African-Americans attend college and own small businesses more than ever, he sees the ATA as a "shadow, a memory of itself," primarily because of one word: integration.

In a fractured country desperate for racial victories, integration appears to be a universal triumph, but its implementation crippled the black infrastructure. Affluent black families, freer from segregation, bank and government redlining, dispersed. Integration arrived in the major leagues, but Negro Leagues owners and executives were not invited, and a black-owned industry collapsed. "The NETA leaders were the talented tenth of black Americans. This was the black intelligentsia," Carrington told me recently. "Then I saw a whole wave of social-worker mentality try to replace this. Integration meant the loss of our leadership. That's the price, because once the tenth wasn't there, who filled the void? What filled the void?"

The truth regarding Du Bois' tenths is that integration has not been integration at all but actually absorption and isolation -- absorption of Carrington's black intelligentsia into the upper- and middle-class mainstream, isolation of the rest of the population into the black underclass. "When I was growing up, we weren't asking for things," he says. "Now in place of the leadership is this welfare mentality, where tennis and other programs are charity-based. Those aren't based on mentoring, of a community doing for itself, where kids see successful adults they can aspire to. The tenth is all gone. We left the rest behind."

Isolation turned black athleticism into a lottery ticket. Jackie Robinson, Ashe, Gibson and Carrington were college-educated. But in the absence of the tenths who once headed the ATA and were symbols of stability and achievement to African-American communities, a new narrative has taken hold: the inner-city success story using his millionth-percentile ability as a way out of the ghetto. Meanwhile, the tenths are homeless too, culturally removed from their roots as the black elite but never quite accepted into the white mainstream either. What's left is the shading, terms like "inner-city," "urban" and "underserved populations" serving as code that encapsulates black America only as something that requires saving -- by the government, by the committed wealthy or by the individual talent of a great jumper. A narrative of single mothers and poverty without the Du Bois layer of achievement robs Carrington of his history.

"How many kids see other blacks with nice homes, nice cars, nice lives?" he asks. "This is what needs to be visible. This is what means something to them. My life in tennis was looking up to a group of people who were accomplished. It wasn't broken glass on public courts. It wasn't charity, handouts. That wasn't my life. That shouldn't be anybody's life."