Tennis emerged as a fashionable sport for white elites in the 1880s. Walnut Hills provided the settling for many early courts, beginning with a club located on Reading Road at Oak Street, on what is still called “Tennis Lane.” The Cincinnati Tennis Club moved around Walnut Hills and Mount Auburn for several years and found its permanent home in 1899 on Dexter Avenue, a few blocks east of Woodburn. Tennis courts served as socially prestigious venues for the wealthy members. Two decades later, tennis courts accessible to African Americans opened in the park at Chapel Street and Ashland Avenue.
Walnut Hills had always been a suburb for middle class Blacks, with the increasing organization during the 1910s and ‘20s. The Negro Civic Welfare Association joined the Community Chest (later named the United Way) in 1917. This connection with the white philanthropic power structure in Cincinnati lent both influence and money to the efforts of more prosperous Blacks to support their own aspiration as well as the needs of their less fortunate brethren. Under the leadership of James Robinson, a Black sociologist who came to Cincinnati to teach at the Frederick Douglass School, the NCWA thrived. Wendel Dabney’s Cincinnati’s Colored Citizens, published in 1926, listed its annual accomplishments:
1917 – Negro Civic Welfare Association created …
1918 – A survey of the social conditions … The Better Housing League urged to begin work among colored people.
1919 – [Colored] Orphan Asylum, Home for Aged Colored Women and Old Men’s Home brought into the Community Chest …
1920 – Recreational Program worked out, reaching nearly every [Black] community – West End, Walnut Hills, O’Bryonville, Madisonville, Lockland …
1921 – Tennis courts established on Ashland Avenue.
The accomplishment for 1921 is surely a surprising one: Tennis courts on Ashland Avenue. The public courts provided an aspirational space for the middle-class Black population of Walnut Hills. (It was also convenience for the mostly white students at the original Walnut Hills High School just across Myrtle at Ashland and Burdette in those days before the completion of Victory Parkway.)
The Progressive Era had seen the construction of a new Frederick Douglass School building (on Alms between Myrtle and Chapel) and of Walnut Hills Park for children (on Ashland Avenue between the same cross streets), both in 1911. The park began with a playground and a baseball field. In 1915, the city condemned the buildings in the southeast quadrant of the Douglass block to provide more playground space for the School. Two houses were moved to nearby lots; the rest (owned by Lane Seminary) were razed. Amid this flurry of development for the community Jacob Schmidlapp erected the Gordon Terrace apartments offering decent basic rental housing to Black families
The construction of tennis courts at the park on Ashland 1921, explicitly built to provide Black players with a place to play, speaks to the continuing growth of aspirations of the community to engage in a middle-class pastime. Yet the victory for assimilation was by no means complete. Dabney also covered the facility in the conversational style he adopted in his outspoken newspaper The Union:
“Two tennis courts at each end of the grounds, one set for white and the other for negro players, will be laid out on the playground at Ashland and Chapel streets, Walnut Hills, according to a decision of the board.
“’Did that happen in Georgia or Mississippi?’ Nay, Nay, Pauline, in Cincinnati. ‘How can a Public Board so regulate Public Grounds, created and maintained by the taxes of all citizens regardless of Race, Color, or Religion?’ They can’t do it, Pauline, but they do …”
Yet the courts at Ashland Park did provide the amenity to Black citizens of Walnut Hills. The Cincinnati Post Cincinnatus column by Alfred Segal observed in 1923, “On Walnut Hills there is a neighborhood inhabited by negros. Many of them own the homes in which they live. Their homes are adorned by heat lawns and green flower boxes. Their children have wide spaces in which to play. At Chapel St and Ashland Av they maintain a tennis court and baseball diamond.
“It is a neighborhood in which comfort and cleanliness are accompanied by high-minded, orderly living. In this respect this neighborhood differs not in the least from the neighborhood of white people that adjoins it.”
Cincinnatus went on to contrast our Black neighborhood and the West End, and went so far as to suggest if some of the poor Black immigrants from the South could move to the better neighborhood, “they will be as law-abiding as the negro of Walnut Hills.”
Dr. Charles Dillard remembers playing at the courts as a child, and he remembers it being difficult for African Americans otherwise to find places to practice the game. Guests at the Manse Hotel, another middle-class Black amenity a few blocks west on Chapel Street during the days of hotel segregation, found their way to Ashland Park to enjoy a game on the courts.
In response to a Facebook post on Ashland Park, Valorie Brown-Johnson remarked “Ashland Park also had tennis courts. I remember seeing celebrities who were staying at the Manse Hotel play tennis there.”