Robert W. (Bobby) Johnson III is delighted by all the recent recognition of his grandfather’s contributions to the tennis world, but there is one distinction he would like to see buried: “the godfather of black tennis.”
For Bobby, that tagline is misleading and too confining for the legendary R. Walter Johnson, famously known as “Whirlwind” by the public and affectionately called “Dr. J.” by those under his tutelage.
Yet, the description is frequently used, perhaps first derived from the biography titled “Whirlwind, the Godfather of Black Tennis.” by former USA Today writer Doug Smith.
“He wasn’t that narrow-minded,” scoffs Bobby Johnson, oldest of Johnson’s three grandsons, who is writing his own book on his grandfather’s legacy. “He was not about black tennis. He was about integrating the sport.”
Indeed, R. Walter (Whirlwind) Johnson is credited as much as anyone for helping to break the color barriers in tennis, first guiding Althea Gibson and later Arthur Ashe, who were the first African Americans of their respective gender to win grand slam tennis championships.
In 2009, Dr. Johnson, who died in 1971, was inducted posthumously into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and Museum. He also was among the first batch of inductees into the Black Tennis Hall of Fame established a year earlier.
Whirlwind’s role in promoting tennis among blacks and helping to desegregate the sport was highlighted in a recent Tennis Channel tribute to Black History Month.
A video with narration by Johnson’s youngest grandson, Lange Johnson, told how the doctor was a “game changer” as a trainer, mentor and coach to scores of young African-Americans whom he recruited to hone their tennis skills on the clay court at his Lynchburg, Va., home.
The home, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002, and the court have suffered from lack of maintenance, and Dr. Johnson’s grandchildren have established the Whirlwind Johnson Foundation to raise money to refurbish the property.
That effort has brought renewed attention to Dr. Johnson, who was nicknamed “Whirlwind” for his dervish style as an All-American running back at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.
Dr. Johnson was in his 30s when he took up tennis. Admittedly mediocre as a singles player, he became a top-notch doubles specialist, winning seven mixed doubles titles with Althea Gibson at the national tournaments sponsored by the American Tennis Association, the black rival to the U.S. Lawn and Tennis Association (forerunner of the USTA).
As founder of the ATA’s Junior Development Program, Dr. Johnson opened his home and his wallet to scores of young black tennis players who would train on his court and eat at his table during the summers. His camp also was open to whites.
In 1946, Dr. Johnson and North Carolina physician Hubert Eaton, attended an ATA championship match between Gibson and Roumania Peters with the notion Gibson could be the player to fulfill their mission of tearing down the racial wall in tennis.
While Gibson lost that match, she won the support of the two doctors. They trained and groomed her to be the champion she became. She won the French Open in 1956, and both the U.S. Open and Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958. Ashe later became the first and only black male to win a grand slam title, with U.S. Open, Australian Open and Wimbledon championships.
Among the more than 200 young tennis players who trained at Dr. Johnson’s tennis academy was Bob Davis, founder of the Black Tennis History Museum.
“He was a no-nonsense kind of dude,” Davis says of Dr. Johnson. “There was a lot of tennis, a lot of instruction and a lot of chores.”
Davis says Dr. Johnson should be remembered not just for his influence on Gibson and Ashe but also for the impact he had on scores of others who did not reach the same heights.
“What Doc did was very special,” Davis says. “So many have attributed their personal success, including me, to having had that experience,” Davis says. “He put his career up as a fundraiser for the Junior Development Program.”
Bobby Johnson, who played at Howard University and is now a teaching pro in Silver Spring, Md., recalls spending summers at his grandfather’s camp and traveling up and down the East Coast to play in weekend tournaments.
“When I was a little kid, Oh, my God!, I loved the ATA,” Bobby says, reflecting on the trips to Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York for weekend tournaments. “Want to talk about good tennis, we saw some of the best tennis in the world.”
Bobby, 57, says the book he is working on is as much about promoting and preserving his grandfather’s legacy history as setting the record straight.
“I’m not trying to make any money off of it,” he says. “I just want my grandfather’s story to be told, and told correctly.”