Aretha Fuqua, President, West Louisville Tennis Club, and Donnie Morris, Youth Instructor, West Louisville Tennis Club, hope to reopen the clay courts in Chickasaw Park. | Courtesy of the Olmsted Parks Conservancy

Early May is usually reserved for horse racing in Louisville, but the Olmsted Parks Conservancy is hoping to get local residents thinking about another sport — tennis.

The conservancy has partnered with the United States Tennis Association’s Southern Kentucky chapter and West Louisville Tennis Club to raise the $5,000 needed to reopen the clay courts Chickasaw Park in time for the Arthur Lloyd Johnson Memorial Tournament on June 21.

Chickasaw Park has been home to the only free and public clay courts in the city for the last 80 years, but a lack of clay may prevent the six clay courts from opening this summer. Stephanie George, Olmsted’s director of marketing, said her organization is offering a one-year membership benefiting the park.

A $25 donation entitles a person to all the conservancy member benefits, including free admission to guided hikes in the Olmsted Parks, and discounts and invites to event throughout the year. With a donation of at least $50, patrons also get an Olmsted Parks Conservancy T-shirt.

Donations will be matched by the Raise a Racquet for Kentucky Tennis Foundation, up to $1,000.

Since the campaign started on April 30, George said, it has raised $1,500 from 25 donors, most of them first-time conservancy members.

“The USTA and the West Louisville Tennis Club have been great partners when it comes to getting the word out. These clay courts are a historic, which is why we stepped in to help. The courts are a resource for a lot of people in the community and that shows in the support we’ve already received,” she added.

Layla George, president and CEO of Olmsted Parks Conservancy, meets with Aretha Fuqua and Donnie Morris of the West Louisville Tennis Club. | Courtesy of the Olmsted Parks Conservancy

Chickasaw Park has a rich 97-year history of tennis, with the West Louisville Tennis club at its center.  From 1922 to 1954, when the Louisville parks were segregated, Chickasaw Park was the only place in the city open to black players.

Chickasaw Park’s clay and hard courts, which are basically asphalt, played host to numerous city and tri-state tournaments dating back to 1939.

The West Louisville Tennis Club hosted the Mid-Tac Tennis Tournament in the 1940s, where Althea Gibson, the first African-American woman to win Wimbledon, played an exciting exhibition match. In the 1950s and 1960s, John McGill, one of the best tennis players to ever come out of Louisville, played at Chickasaw Park.

The annual USTA-sanctioned Arthur Lloyd Johnson Memorial Tournament has been held at Chickasaw since its inception in 2003.

Johnson, a JCPS educator and West Louisville Tennis Club member, made history in 1955 as the first African-American to participate in the Louisville Public Parks Tennis League. He was inducted into the Kentucky Patrons Tennis Hall of Fame in 1993.

Aretha Fuqua, West Louisville Tennis Club president, said the tournament dedicated to Johnson — who died in 2005 — is a source of pride for her organization and the Chickasaw community. It attracts more than 200 people each year to the park, she said, and 15 players have already signed up to play in this year’s tournament.

The tournament is in danger because the clay courts require annual maintenance due to the decomposition of the clay that takes place over the winter. The $5,000 will go toward purchasing 12 tons of clay to restore the courts to ideal condition.

The historic clay tennis courts at Chickasaw Park needs about $5,000 in repairs. | Courtesy of Olmsted Parks Conservancy

Fuqua said the city had a contract with a company to take care of the courts, but it was cancelled this year due to the current budget crisis.

She worries that if the courts do not reopen West End will begin to forget its rich tennis legacy. She pointed out that St. Francis High School and Central High School – Arthur Lloyd Johnson’s alma mater – had used Chickasaw Park as their home court in past years, but St. Francis has moved to a court in Crescent Hill.

“This is about more than a tournament,” Fuqua said. “Our club does clinics over the summer for kids on these courts. We are trying to expose children to things they might never imagine themselves doing. Who knows, the next Serena Williams could come out of the West End of Louisville.”

Fuqua said older residents and children use the clay courts because it is more forgiving on the joints and the game is slower than on the hard courts.

The campaign to reopen the clay courts, Fuqua said, is only a precursor to a larger initiative to rebuild the six hard courts in Chickasaw Park. She estimated that project would cost more than $100,000 to complete that project.

George said any money raised by the Olmsted Park Conservancy above what is needed to fix the clay courts would be donated toward maintaining the hard courts in the park.

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Michael L. Jones
Michael L. Jones, a freelance journalist and author, covers communities for Insider Louisville. His latest book "Louisville Jug Music: From Earl McDonald to the National Jubilee" (History Press) received the 2014 Samuel Thomas Book Award from the Louisville Historical League. In addition to his contributions to Insider, his writing appears regularly in LEO Weekly, Louisville Magazine, Food & Dining – Louisville Edition, and Who’s Who Louisville: African American Profiles. He also sits on the board of directors of the National Jug Band Jubilee. Jones and his wife, Melissa Amos-Jones, a physical therapist, live in the Kenwood Hills neighborhood near Iroquois Park.