Nehemiah Atkinson – Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame
Born in Biloxi, Miss., in 1918, Nehemiah Atkinson was engaged by the sport of tennis at an early age after discovering it at the Dryades Street YMCA. Despite the realities of racial barriers during those times, Atkinson did not let them discourage his love of the game, developing into a standout player who would go on to give lessons to hundreds of young players from all different ethnic backgrounds. He spent 23 years as a the Director of Tennis for the New Orleans Recreation Department, retiring in 1995. He was also an active volunteer with the American Tennis Association and then established the Nehemiah Atkinson Scholarship Foundation.
As a competitor, he won more than 15 Southern Singles Championships and several Silver Balls as a finalists at USTA National Championships. He represented Louisiana at Senior Cup competition earning many honors including serving as captain of the Southern 75’s team at the USTA Intersectional Team competition and the 1993 USPTR Player of the Year honor. He also captured the 1996 USPTR Men’s 70 singles title. Amazingly, Atkinson never let age affect his enjoyment of the game either. Still playing at a high-level into his 80s, he won four gold balls in national and international competition in 1999, including winning the National Hardcourt Championship (Men’s 80s Age Bracket) in San Diego. He played on the 1999, 2000 and 2001 United States Gardner Mulloy Cup Teams, winning the competition in 2001 to become world champions in the Men’s 80’s. In 2002, he won the Vets World Tennis Championship for Men’s Singles in the 80-and-up division in Perth, Australia.
Inducted into the Louisiana Tennis Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Southern Tennis Foundation Hall of Fame in 1997, Atkinson was the recipient of the inaugural Kennedy Ripple of Hope Award and the T. N. Touchstone Memorial Trophy presented annually to a Southern senior player who displays outstanding sportsmanship and support of tennis in the South.
Atkinson’s family moved to New Orleans just before the Great Depression. He was educated at the Thomy Lafon and J. W. Hoffman schools in New Orleans, and at the Louisiana Industrial Training High School in Farmerville. When World War II came, he served in the Army’s Black Corps of Engineers, building airstrips in Puget Sound, Wash., and Valdez, Alaska. After medic training, he sailed to the South Pacific and built airstrips in New Guinea, Buna Island and other locations in the Coral Sea.
Atkinson was part of a group that formed the New Orleans Hard Court Tennis Club to organize and increase play at the YMCA’s two courts and also at Xavier University’s two cement courts. He went on to teach a long line of young players in New Orleans. All while competing and becoming close with the likes of tennis legend Arthur Ashe.
He passed away on February 9, 2003.
Sources: BlackCollegian.com, Southern Tennis Foundation, Gambit Weekly
Read More: Jumping the Net, from Gambit Weekly, Dec. 9, 2002.