Newport is primarily known today for its spectacular summer cottages such as The Breakers, The Elms, Marble House, Rosecliff, and others from America’s Gilded Age, which are now operated as museums by The Preservation Society of Newport County. But Newport also contains another unique landmark; the Newport Casino was commissioned in 1879 as a private club for Newport’s wealthy summer residents. The club opened in 1880 and the Real Tennis Club and Casino Theatre were completed the following year. “Real tennis” refers to the original game played on an inside court before “lawn tennis” on an outdoor court became popular in the 20th century.
By the 1950s, the club was struggling financially until wealthy Newport summer residents Jimmy and Cathy Van Alen purchased the property and opened the Tennis Hall of Fame in the Casino in 1954. The museum together with continued tennis matches provided the financial stability needed to save the original building and grounds. In 1984, the International Tennis Association recognized the museum as the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
When the Tennis Hall of Fame was founded, segregated sports facilities in the southern states restricted access for young African American athletes and potential sportsmen and women. In Lynchburg, Virginia, an African American doctor named Robert Walter Johnson took matters into his own hands, opening a tennis camp on his own property which contained a tennis court. It is difficult to overstate the impact of Dr. Johnson’s efforts on behalf of the sport of tennis; both Althea Gibson and later Arthur Asher, both inductees into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, benefited from his tutelage. Post-humously, Dr. Johnson also was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2009. (The 2008 photo of the International Tennis Hall of Fame by Daniel Case is shared here under CC BY-SA 3.0)
Now, descendants of Dr. Johnson, through the Whirlwind Johnson Foundation together with the US Tennis Association, are working to restore and preserve this important place—a landmark in the history of the international sport of tennis.
Restoring a landmark for African-American tennis stars
By Ben Rothenberg
The New York Times
August 27, 2017