Breaking the Color Barrier in Tennis

Jimmie McDaniel was the son of a former baseball player in the Negro League but became known for another sport: tennis. He started playing tennis by hitting balls against a wall. He never had a lesson. At 6’5” tall, he was initially thought to be a track athlete, specializing in the high jump.

When he joined the all-white tennis team in his high school during his senior year, he became the highest-ranked player. A practice match with the highest-ranked junior tennis player in the nation was an indication of Jimmie’s talent. He barely lost even though he had been playing tennis for only two years.

Jimmie was given a track scholarship by Xavier University of Louisiana, but he quickly moved to tennis as his sport. He won a number of championships against other African American players. He was not allowed to compete in NCAA tournaments in the segregated sports world of the late 1930s.

Don Budge, one of the leading white tennis stars at the time, agreed to play Jimmie in an exhibition match. It was the first time in six decades since tennis began in America that a white player and a black player competed together on a tennis court. What should have been a breakthrough in the integration of tennis was delayed by World War II.

When Jimmie tried to compete in tournaments after World War II, he continued to face discrimination. He would often be denied entry. When he was allowed to enter tournaments, he was often given the wrong directions to the tournament site and would forfeit his match when he showed up late. By the late 1950’s Jimmie was finally able to compete without the obstacles he once faced. He was ranked among the top 20 players in the country in the over-60 category.

Hidden heroes often find their biology to be a deterrent to achieving their dreams. With persistence, they make breakthroughs for others of their race, gender, nationality, or others like themselves. Jimmie McDaniel helped pave the way for great African Americans to follow.

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“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” – Arthur Ashe

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