Life Stories: Willie Powell led way in tennis, opportunity

Willie Powell founded the OIC Annual Invitational, a tennis competition open to all, but specifically promoted within the African American tennis community.
Willie Powell founded the OIC Annual Invitational, a tennis competition open to all, but specifically promoted within the African American tennis community. clowenstein@newsobserver.com

In 1969, Willie Powell helped establish Rocky Mount’s Opportunities Industrialization Center, Inc., a member of a national nonprofit network determined to address high unemployment rates among historically African-American and poor communities.

Powell, who died last month at 81, served on the board, and went on to be executive director for 30 years.

Not long after the Rocky Mount center opened, Powell took the same goal to the tennis court – opening up opportunities in his community for people who been left out before. He had only been playing the game a short time, but that didn’t stop him from founding the OIC Annual Invitational, a competition open to all, but specifically promoted within the African-American tennis community. For 18 years the OIC Tournament thrived each Labor Day weekend, starting with a field of eight, later bringing in more than 100 players from as far as Texas.

In order to finish the tournament in the three days allotted, players like John McLean, president of the Durham-Orange Community Tennis Association, remember playing upwards of seven or eight matches in a day. It was grueling. Players were lucky if they received the requisite 30 minutes rest between rounds.

“It always came down to if you win, with your partner, which matches are you going to put your full effort in?” McLean recalled with a chuckle. For those who made it to the later rounds, it was a marathon.

Still, people loved it.

“We thought we was at Flushing Meadows,” said Billy Battle, longtime friend and former president of Raleigh’s Ebony Racquet Club, referring to the site of the U.S. Open.

Though his aging body kept him off the court much of the last few years, he stayed loyal to the sport.

“You know what? I wouldn’t knock a golf ball if it was on the road in front of me,” Powell told the News & Observer as a Tar Heel of the Week in 2007.

‘Gave his entire life’

Powell was raised in rural Edgecombe County, one of five children. After high school he attended Harris Barber College.

He was always focused on helping others, said longtime friend and OIC tournament assistant director Merland Wright.

“He gave his entire life to helping the community,” she said.

At the Rocky Mount center, Powell helped institute programs such as GED tutoring, a child-care development center, employment training, motivational courses and health-care resources.

Powell, known for having a very calming and soothing effect, was always involved in sports (he played baseball in cow pastures in his youth) but he coached in other ways as well. He became like a father to Wright’s son.

“It meant a lot to me because my son didn’t know his father,” Wright said.

Bonding over tennis

Powell was well into middle age when he first picked up a tennis racquet. It didn’t take long for the game to become a seven-day-a-week habit.

“I became a real competitor,” Powell told the News & Observer. “My backhand wasn’t very good, but my forehand was devastating.”

What he found most appealing about the sport however, outside the physicality, was the social aspect. Though it’s not considered a team sport like basketball or football, tennis allows for banter.

Doubles players have a partner for sharing the highs and lows. Old friend can catch up during changeovers, and opponents can sit and have a beer after the match.

“I enjoy people, “ Powell said. “That’s probably what made me enjoy tennis so well.”

The same rang true for his tournament.

“It was a great tournament, it had some great players, some great college players. But mostly it was about bringing people together in a fun way,” McLean recalled.

A future hall of famer?

Battle nominated Powell for the North Carolina Tennis Association’s Hall of Fame back in 2007, but to no avail. He was told, he said, that it’s common for applications to be rejected on the first attempt. He plans to give it another go-round soon, but wishes his old friend could have lived to see it happen.

“To me, he promoted tennis, and from that he has gotten so many African-American people playing,” Battle said.