Tennis has a special place in Wilmington’s 20th-century history, and a piece of that history is coming to life again.
Earlier this year, One Love Tennis purchased the former home of Hubert Eaton, a prominent African- American physician, and is in the process of restoring it to its original state. The house at 1406 Orange St. was more than a home to Eaton and his family: It was a hub of tennis activity for many young people who longed to play the game but were forbidden to use public courts because of the color of their skin. Eaton, an accomplished tennis player himself, opened his backyard court to anyone who wanted to play.
That court served as a launching pad for Althea Gibson, who came to Wilmington in 1946 to live with the Eaton family as she completed high school and honed her racquet skills with the doctor’s help.
“There’s so much history in this home,” said Lenny Simpson, founder of One Love Tennis and an early Eaton protégé. Not only did the property, with its clay court and swimming pool, serve as a sports center for the African-American community, it was also a place of local civil rights activity because Eaton challenged barriers of many kinds.
“This man desegregated the [Wilmington] YMCA, sued the school board and took the school [desegregation] case to the Supreme Court,” Simpson said. “He was the first black medical doctor to work at New Hanover hospital, and he was responsible for Martin Luther King Jr. to be invited here.”
(On the night King was assassinated, April 4, 1968, he was supposed to be at a voter registration event at Williston High School but went to Memphis because of a sanitation workers’ strike.)
Eaton, Simpson said, was a man the black residents of the time considered their voice and to whom they could look for hope in a very segregated Wilmington.
In its heyday, Simpson said, you could “pick up this house and put it in any neighborhood in this town.”
Built in 1948 and sitting on three city lots, Easton’s two-story ranch had a state-of-the-art kitchen and surround sound hi-fi. The lawn was watered by a sprinkler system. The house also had an alarm system that included wired windows: a testament to the dangers the family faced as outspoken champions of civil rights.
Dr. Eaton also installed a darkroom so he could develop his X-rays, since he was not allowed to use the hospital’s X-ray developing equipment.
Simpson saw all this firsthand as a child. He lived around the corner from the Eatons and could hear the thump of tennis balls on the clay surface.
When he was 5, a neighbor took him over to watch a young Althea Gibson practice. She coaxed him onto the court and showed him the basics. Four years later, Simpson was on the tennis circuit in the U.S., mentored by Gibson and Eaton and by a tennis-loving friend of Eaton’s, Walter Johnson, a black physician in Virginia who served as mentor to both Gibson and Arthur Ashe.
Simpson’s talent and enthusiasm for tennis took him from Wilmington to Eastern prep schools and earned him a college tennis scholarship. At 15, he was one of the youngest males in history to play in the U.S. Open (then called the U.S. National Championships) and returned to the tournament two more times. He qualified for and played Wimbledon and was nominated for the U.S. Junior Davis Cup team.
After a few years as a pro, Simpson opted for a more settled life so he could raise a family. In 1977, he became co-owner of an indoor and outdoor racquet club in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he taught tennis. Five years ago Simpson returned to Wilmington with the goal of carrying on Eaton’s mission of using tennis as the means to engage and inspire young people.
One Love Tennis and the Lenny Simpson Tennis and Education Fund grew from Simpson’s dream.
According to Simpson, One Love Tennis now serves several hundred at-risk youngsters every week with its free tennis instruction and academic support programs, “changing their lives, literally.”
It holds programs at several community centers in the area. But with the purchase of the Eaton property, there will be a history-laden headquarters.
“We are going to make this [house] our base,” Simpson said, adding that the purchase “gives us more relevance. It will be a haven for kids 12-plus who have aged out of the centers. This is going to be our safe haven.”
The $250,000 to purchase the property came from a couple who wanted to see Eaton’s legacy continue, Simpson said. The restoration of the house, which is underway, is estimated to cost another $110,000.
Contributions toward that cost have included $50,000 from Michael Jordan, a gift Simpson calls “a tremendous endorsement.”
“I’ve been working on that for over a year,” Simpson said about the donation. “He knew the history of this house.”
An important part of the project is the restoration of Eaton’s tennis court, which now lies buried under several inches of soil. The work on that will likely begin this fall. Some funds for that project have come from the U.S. Tennis Association, which considers the restoration “very important,” Simpson said.
He hopes to get matching funds from the city of Wilmington and is also approaching area businesses and individuals for project support.
“That court is where [kids] will get their tennis instruction,” he added.
Simpson and his wife will live in the house, but, he said, it will operate as One Love’s hub, with the kitchen serving as the center for nutrition education and Althea Gibson’s suite upstairs as the organization’s academic enrichment center.