This is part 2 of my Black History Month look at the stories behind artifacts at the National Museum of African American History & Culture that speak to North Carolina’s coastal history.
As I continue my look at the treasures at the National Museum of African American History & Culture, the second item I want to discuss is another photograph: a photograph of Dr. Hubert Eaton’s backyard and the edge of his tennis court.
I’m an avid tennis player and a big fan of the sport and so for me this photograph shows a national shrine: 1406 Orange Street in Wilmington, N.C.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Dr. Eaton was a surgeon at Community Hospital, Wilmington’s hospital for African Americans.
At that time, Wilmington still had separate hospitals, clinics and other medical facilities for whites and blacks. White leaders never allowed black physicians to treat white patients in a hospital or even in a private clinic.
In addition to being a surgeon, Dr. Eaton was also an accomplished amateur tennis player and a pioneering civil rights activist.
Among his many other civil rights accomplishments, he led the campaigns to integrate health care facilities in Wilmington.
The tennis court at his home is what grabs my attention today, though, because on that court Dr. Eaton oversaw the training of Althea Gibson, one of the greatest women’s tennis players of all time. She has been called “the Jackie Robinson of American tennis” for her pioneering role in integrating professional tennis in the U.S.
Gibson was the first African American woman to play in the U.S. Nationals (now known as the U.S. Open) in 1951. Five years later, in 1956, she became the first African American, male or female, to win a Grand Slam title– the French Championships (now known as Roland Garros or the French Open).
She eventually won the women’s singles championships at Wimbledon (1957 and ’58) and at the U.S. Nationals (also 1957 and ’58), as well as five doubles and one mixed-doubles titles in the four “Grand Slam” tournaments.
A remarkable, multi-sport athlete, Gibson was also the first black player on the Women’s Professional Golf Tour.
After meeting Dr. Eaton at a black tennis championship in Ohio in 1946, Gibson accepted his offer to live and train during the school year at his family’s home in Wilmington.
She lived and trained in Wilmington from 1946 to 1949. In the summertime, she trained with Walter Johnson, a black physician in Lynchburg, Va. who later also helped to train Arthur Ashe.
While in Wilmington, Gibson attended Williston Industrial High School, where she played saxophone in the school band and starred on the women’s basketball team.
You can learn about recent efforts to re-build Dr. Eaton’s tennis court in Wilmington and to honor Althea Gibson with a statue at Flushing Meadows, in New York City, the site of the U.S. Open, in Steve Tignor’s recent article at tennis.com!