Black tennis pioneer will be missed

The black tennis world lost a stalwart with the recent passing of Marcus A. Freeman, Jr., who for the past 39 years had published a magazine devoted to the coverage of African Americans in a sport in which they had been largely ignored by mainstream media.

Freeman died at his home in Dallas on September 4, 10 days before his 82nd birthday. His death leaves a huge void in the black tennis community, particularly in the southwest.

“What we lost was a black trailblazer for tennis in the southwest,” said Bert Milliner, a black tennis instructor at the Kiest Tennis Center in Dallas, where Freeman had been the head pro for more than 25 years.

“Marcus was a legend,” Milliner said. “He will surely be missed around here.”

 

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Marcus Freeman

I never had the pleasure of meeting Freeman, but we had exchanged emails on a couple of blogpost topics. I was deeply flattered and grateful when he asked in February if he could publish tennisinthehood.com in BT (Black Tennis) Magazine.

Freeman launched Black Tennis Magazine in 1977 after concluding the mainstream media had intentionally neglected to report the victories of two black youngsters in singles and doubles at a major Texas tennis tournament.

The publication began as an eight-page, newspaper-style tabloid that expanded to a 32-page magazine in 2000. In 2013, Freeman published a 104-page special edition that featured First Lady Michelle Obama and her physical fitness campaign.

In its beginning, the magazine focused on tennis at black colleges and universities in the southwest. But it also covered the 1977 American Tennis Association’s national championships in New Orleans.

The ATA is the oldest black sports organization in the nation, and coverage of ATA tournaments became a staple of the magazine. It also featured profiles on black tennis stars past and present, including Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe and Serena and Venus Williams.

During my research for this blog, I pored over past issues of BT Magazine, looking for nuggets of black tennis history as well as additional sources.

The magazine became one of my more valued resources, and I was delighted to learn a free online subscription came with my membership in the  ATA.

Were it not for BT Magazine, I may not have learned Benjamin Woods, a black photographer my wife and I met a couple years ago at the Sony Open in Miami (now called the Miami Open), has covered more than 100 Grand Slam tennis tournaments.

That is a remarkable record, as it is the equivalent of having photographed each of the slams — Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open — every year for 25 years.

Woods, who attended Freeman’s funeral, was a frequent contributor to the magazine.

Before establishing a niche as a tennis pro and ardent supporter of black tennis, Freeman served in the U.S. Army and as a teacher and administrator. He earned a doctorate from what is now Texas A&M University and a master’s degree from Prairie View A&M University.

Freeman was the first black head pro at the Kiest Tennis Center, where he trained legions of black tennis players, including  James Thomas.

Thomas, 55, told me Freeman was a role model both as an educator and a tennis coach.

“He was my principal in middle school,” Thomas said. “He had such a big influence.”

“Most of the black people in Dallas who play tennis were either directly or indirectly influenced by Marcus,” Thomas added. “He was a pioneer. He was our Jackie Robinson, our Arthur Ashe. He gave people like me the ability to dream.”

John Wilkerson, best known for coaching black tennis legends Zina Garrison and Lori McNeil, said Freeman’s legacy runs deep in the heart of Texas.

“He did so much for tennis all over the state of Texas, but especially in Dallas,” said Wilkerson, who runs Garrison’s tennis academy in Houston. “He was a close friend of mine, and I’m surely going to miss him.”

Freeman organized the Southwest Tennis Association ATA championships and was founder of the Freeman Junior Development Program.

In 2013, the United States Tennis Association saluted him with its Youth Tennis Program Award. Earlier this year, he received a tennis award from the city of Plano, Texas.

Yet, probably his most cherished accolade was induction into the Black Tennis Hall of Fame in 2015.

“I’m happy that he was inducted into the Black Tennis Hall of Fame,” said Bob Davis, founder of the Black Tennis History Museum and director of the hall of fame. “He was very proud of that achievement.”

 

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