Durham County

Durham to honor Algonquin Tennis Club, hub for African Americans during segregation

For 30 years when the lines of segregation in Durham were more clearly drawn, the Algonquin Tennis Club gave African-American residents a place to gather.

It was a hub of social activity along Fayetteville Street from the 1930s until a fire in the 1960s destroyed its storied clubhouse.

It also was the birthplace of the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs, now the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, one of the city’s most powerful civic organizations.

The Algonquin’s history will be honored Thursday when a roadside marker will be unveiled in the 1400 block of Fayetteville Street near where the club once stood. The ceremony will occur on the Durham Committee’s 84th anniversary, celebrating when “150 citizens of all walks of life assembled on August 15, 1935,” according to Andre Vann’s African Americans of Durham County.

The unveiling event will begin at 6:30 p.m. near the front of the W. D. Hill Recreation Center on Fayetteville Street. The public is invited.

“I am very, very excited about the marker being placed near the old Algonquin Tennis Club,” said Durham historian Eddie Davis, a former City Council member.

New to Durham

One of the driving forces behind the marker is Victor Maafo, who arrived in Durham in the early 1960s as an immigrant from Ghana.

He paid $60 a month for the lone efficiency among the 10 rooms the Algonquin rented as he pursued a two-year internship with the N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Co. His rent included breakfast and supper.

“The Algonquin Tennis Clubhouse provided housing for me,” Maafo said. “Without it, I would not be where I am today.

The Fayetteville Street neighborhood in the historic Hayti district was popular with African-American professionals, businesspeople and professors. The club was near the W. D. Hill Recreation Center, the historic Scarborough family home, the College Inn restaurant, the J. L. Page and Sons grocery and diagonally across the street from the former Lincoln Hospital.

Living there gave Maafo a front-row seat to see Durham’s social circuit.

“I believe it will be right for me to say that the Algonquin Tennis Clubhouse was the convention center for Durham at that time,” he said.

Maafo was welcomed almost anywhere he went, he said.

“I knew where I could go and where I couldn’t,” he said.

Young tennis players photographed at the Algonquin Tennis Club in 1954. Future tennis great Arthur Ashe is on the front row, 5th from right. Courtesy of Open Durham

Tennis at the Algonquin

Durham, like other Southern cities, had rigidly segregated public accommodations during the 1930s and ’40s. The Algonquin and the black-owned Biltmore Hotel were among the places black visitors and newcomers could stay.

Activities at the club in 1938 included a spring dance, a fall reception, a Christmas dance, a bridge tournament, a party for Juniors and Sub-Debs and their escorts and various other meetings, dances, card parties and dinners, according to a report in The Carolina Times, the city’s African American-owned newspaper.

Tennis, at that time, was seen as “white society’s most cherished possession; a game too sophisticated and too ‘intellectual’ for black men and women,” according to an Ebony magazine article about 1957 Wimbledon champion Althea Gibson that mentioned the club.

Gibson is said to have played matches at the Algonquin. So did Arthur Ashe, who played there as a rising junior star before turning pro and winning titles at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open in the 1970s.

The club’s three red-clay courts were often used for tournaments and to teach children the game, said Nathan Garrett, who grew up down the street and often competed against local players, including former state Rep. Mickey Michaux, and touring players from the American Tennis Association.

“I wasn’t a great tennis player ... just, just average but not horrible,” Garrett said.

But in one tournament in 1951, Garrett and Earnest Ingram of Washington, D.C., teamed up to sweep the Ninth Annual Round Robin Tournament “after three days of spectacular doubles play,” according to a report in The Carolinian.

The legacy of the club touched black tennis players from Durham long after it burned.

John Lucas, who starred in the sport as a junior, but chose a career in the NBA after successful two-sport career at the University of Maryland, said in a 2017 Tennis Channel interview that “tennis gave him a future because it was a sport he could play the rest of his life.”

Joe Johnson is a reporter covering breaking stories for The News & Observer. He most recently covered towns in western Wake County and Chatham County. Before that, he covered high school sports for The Herald-Sun.