This doctor’s prescription for the game changed tennis
Dr. Robert ‘Whirlwind’ Johnson helped shape the careers of tennis greats Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson and others
In the midst of the Pierce Street Renaissance Historic District in Lynchburg, Virginia, cars pass by every few minutes. Passengers pause to stare at the white two-story bungalow home with a top half red exterior. The property is empty. It sits on the corner of Pierce and 15th streets, part of only two blocks of homes, some belonging to past prominent blacks. The blocks’ history is so rich that it’s recognized nationally as a historic location. The corner home has been vacant for a quite a while — with visible wear and tear.
But it’s the history in the home, which is in line to be rejuvenated. For those onlookers, it represents a space where the once vibrant block saw the likes of tennis greats Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe. It’s where the black players who changed the scope of the game received the foundation that led them to success. It’s the space created by mentor, visionary and tennis coach Dr. Robert “Whirlwind” Johnson.
When it comes to naming legendary black changemakers who created champions in sports, a few may come to mind. But in the world of tennis, one name is synonymous with black tennis royalty.
Johnson was known to his family and players as “Dr. J,” and to the rest of the world as the “Godfather of black tennis.” He is one of Lynchburg’s black history makers. His family says he was the first African-American doctor to earn staff privileges at Lynchburg General Hospital, where he also was the first black physician to deliver a baby.
The doctor and coach was an avid tennis player and his love for the sport showed. He moonlighted as a tennis coach, and his passion became a lifelong mission that shaped the lives of the men and women who paved the way for today’s tennis stars.
Almost a half-century ago, Ashe became the first black player to be ranked No. 1 by the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) on Dec. 12, 1968. That same year Ashe was the first black player to represent the United States in the Davis Cup.
Johnson died in 1971, but had a chance to watch the fruits of his labor flourish. His student, Ashe, had become the first black man to win the U.S. Open. Gibson had already won the French Open in 1956, the U.S. Open and Wimbledon.
“There were times when I asked myself whether I was being principled or simply a coward … I was wrapped in the cocoon of tennis early in life, mainly by blacks like my most powerful mentor Dr. Robert Walter Johnson of Lynchburg, Virginia,” Ashe once said. “They insisted that I be unfailingly polite on the court, unfalteringly calm and detached, so that whites could never accuse me of meanness. I learned well. I look at photographs of the skinny, frail, little black boy that I was in the early 1950s, and I see that I was my tennis racket and my tennis racket was me. It was my rod and my staff.”
“You had to conduct yourself in the most disciplined way. There was no racket-throwing or foul language, or any of this going on,” said Johnson’s grandson, Lange Johnson. “Very disciplined, very methodical. There was a methodology to what we were doing, and everybody followed the rule.”
For more than two decades, along with his son, Robert W. Johnson II, Johnson trained and mentored tennis players from all over the world on his tennis court next to his home. He also trained and coached his grandchildren to play professional tennis.
“It’s been 48 years since the first African-American male won a major singles title,” Lange Johnson said. “Arthur Ashe won it, the U.S. Open, in ’68, then he came back and won Wimbledon in ’75. That hasn’t been repeated and this guy [Robert W. Johnson II] and his father [Robert “Whirlwind” Johnson] were the guys who set the stage for that to happen. The fact that it hasn’t happened 48 years later is incredible to me, given the fact that this all started in 1946 and bled into many years later. It’s just impossible to imagine, even though we’ve lived it and breathed it, how we could not replicate this feat 48 years later. It’s incredible.”
Johnson II would often run the program until his father returned from physician duties.
“My dad doesn’t get enough credit for this, but he did work that my granddad had not really done, in terms of researching technique and covering all the tennis techniques that existed at the time: the Eastern Forehand, the Continental, the Western,” said Johnson II’s son, Bobby Johnson, of his father.
Under the umbrella of the American Tennis Association (ATA), Johnson founded the Junior Development Tennis Program, using his own money, through which youths from the area could practice and train daily during the summer.
“You had the kids who were living on the property and other kids staying at other people’s properties meeting at the court and having to use it from sunup till sundown. And it was one court. That’s probably one of the most impressive things, that he was able to build champions, so many champions on just one court,” Bobby Johnson said.
Many of the players Johnson coached went on to college, with some receiving financial help from him. He is credited with integrating tennis and instilling high standards that included a sense of pride when it came to sportsmanship.
According the Johnson family’s website, the players in the program traveled the country, winning titles and making history. In 1953, Ashe’s first year at camp, the USLTA extended an invitation to Johnson’s team to play at nationals in Kalamazoo, Michigan, using ATA credentials. That same summer, Bobby Riggs conducted a clinic on Johnson’s court.
“Needless to say, our sport, our country, indeed the world community became a better place because of Althea and Arthur’s achievements. Dr. Johnson made it possible for them to succeed,” John McEnroe acknowledged in the forward of the book Whirlwind: The Godfather of Black Tennis, written by Doug Smith. “His extraordinary role should be remembered, appreciated and applauded not just by African-Americans, but also by everyone who strives for equality and justice.”
Whirlwind the football player: Before the nets and lights
Johnson was an all-around athlete during college. In 1918, he began college at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. He played football there for one year and was later expelled for disciplinary issues. He transferred to Union College, played one year and found himself in a similar situation. After a two-year hiatus, he put his education at the forefront and found himself at Lincoln University, an all-male school, in 1922. It was there that his teammate Hildrus Poindexter nicknamed him “Whirlwind” because of his running style. According to his grandson Bobby Johnson, “He twisted, turned, twirled, spun and bounced off of other players. He didn’t wear a helmet in games, nor did he wear shoulder pads. No one had seen a player run like him, and so he got the name and became a legend on campus.”
He was named captain of the 1923 team.
Johnson’s impact on Lynchburg, Virginia
In 2016, Lynchburg has a total population of about 75,568, and an overall poverty rate of about 21 percent, which exceeds its surrounding counties. Despite its declining economy, it boasts history that sparked the careers of two black tennis champions — Ashe and Gibson.
According to the annespencermuseum.com, Pierce Street, the road that includes the home where the two trained under Johnson, was settled in the 1850s. It was called Confederate Camp Davis during the Civil War, an area that served as a military hospital.
“During Reconstruction, the abandoned barracks were converted to housing for federal soldiers, a freedmen’s school, and a black Methodist church. The area was annexed into Lynchburg in 1870. By the 1880s, Pierce Street included one of the first African-American-owned grocery stores and a community center and was rapidly becoming a center of activity in the community,” the website reads.
Johnson’s descendants tirelessly continue to preserve his legacy in the Lynchburg community.
The family has set up the Whirlwind Johnson Foundation, which focuses on the preservation and restoration of his home and tennis court, establishing a museum in his home where most of this history took place, and increasing awareness about his contribution to the game.
“Once we get that accomplished, I think the goal would be to really start funding programs that are similar to what he did back in the day,” said grandson Lange Johnson. “Or even, maybe kick-starting the next generation, that platform, and having us run that ourselves. So, we have some very high hopes there.”
According to the family website, Johnson “preached perseverance, patience, sportsmanship, etiquette, humility and hard work. He valued education and garnered for his campers’ college scholarships through his network of associations established during his college football playing and coaching days. His lasting legacy is that he made tennis accessible for everyone by relocating it from private, segregated country clubs to integrated public facilities.”
“He was a classy, very classy, very well-respected man on the junior tour. And everybody knew his resume. The minute he showed up, you knew Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, and you knew his players, because they were all well-behaved, all well-mannered, all great sportsmen, kids with great sportsmanship, you name it,” Bobby Johnson said. “They had everything going for them. And, they had him backing them. The minute he died, all the doors that he opened started to shut tightly. And, it was a while before they slowly began to open a little bit more.”
Johnson left an impact on his family and the rest of the world.
“I can tell you what he used to tell us: ‘If you can’t play tennis, you can’t do anything in your life.’ That was his belief system,” said Johnson’s granddaughter, Eileen J. Williams. “If you can’t do tennis, you cannot succeed in any way in life. And, one thing I thought that was particularly special about our family, we were a family of five children who all played, and I don’t think there’s ever been another tennis family that had that many kids in one family playing, especially not an African-American family that traveled and played in tournaments, and to this day I could probably remember my top matches and tell you what the score was.”
Together with his wife, Nerissa Lange Johnson, Robert Johnson II raised their five children to play tennis under the tutelage of their father and late grandfather.
“I’d like to give recognition to our mother,” Williams said. “She was a tolerant tennis mom for decades. Daddy scooped her up from Southern University when they were in college, and you know, she was very young and married into this very formidable, strong family. And, she never played tennis, but she participated to the fullest extent: feeding tennis players, accompanying us to tennis tournaments.”
Together, the strong legacy instilled in the Johnson family drives them to make their father, grandfather and great-grandfather a household name.
In 1972, Johnson was inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame. He was inducted into the Mid-Atlantic Tennis Hall of Fame in 1988 and the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2009. He was honored as an NAACP Life Membership chairman. His home and tennis court on Pierce Street were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.
Johnson’s great-grandson, Evan Smith, has made Lynchburg his home. He assists his family in the efforts to preserve the Johnson home and desires to turn it into a museum and restore the tennis court to its natural state, where some matches could be held someday.
“For the tennis court, the USTA, I think they’re committed to giving us 20 percent of the funds needed to restore the court. We want to be able to also have lighting, and we have these lights up here as well, to make sure that the space can be used at nighttime as well for tournaments, exhibitions, various activities, maybe even add some stands,” Smith said.
“I think the goal with the house is to turn it into a museum,” Smith added. “There can be displays, have someone staffed there to be able to educate visitors about the history and my great-grandfather. Right now, the goal is to raise funds and work with various businesses to raise money.”