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WOMEN'S HISTORY MONTH: EXCLUSIVE! Conversation With Ann Koger - The Life Experience Of An African-American Woman Who Would Not Be Denied - Part I

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Ann Koger is one of the most inspirational women that I have had the opportunity to become acquainted with in my lifetime. She is one of those invincible human beings that fulfilled her dreams and life pursuits at a time when segregation and racism were wholly systemic and acceptable.

The accomplishments achieved by Ann practically appear as if doors for African-Americans and women were wide open and inviting, when in actuality they were closed and unwelcoming.

Ann has earned a societal place among the greatest, yet she is not the least bit interested in the shine that inherently comes with it. She sees her journey as experiences that were either “not an option,” to “I just kept going.”

From growing up in segregated Baltimore, Maryland to retiring in 2016 after 35 years as the Head Coach of Women’s Tennis at Haverford University. Here are some of Ann’s accomplishments and accolades:

  • A four-year letter winner in four of the seven varsity sports (basketball, field hockey, volleyball and tennis) she competed in while at Morgan State University and was inducted into the school's Athletic Hall of Fame in 1982.

  • The second female member of Morgan State’s tennis men’s team, ranking second in singles between 1969-1972 and first in doubles. In 1971

  • One of the country’s first African American women to play in the Virginia Slims Tennis Circuit, competing from 1973 to 1977

  • Is a certified USPTR teaching professional and a member of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA). Her educational background includes B.S. and M.S. degrees from Morgan State University, and an Ed.D. in Sports Administration from Temple University.

  • Officiated at many levels of basketball for 25 years, and in 1985, she became the first woman to officiate an NCAA Division I men’s basketball game.

  • The First Vice President of the American Tennis Association, Koger was the co-director of the 1985 NCAA Division III Women’s Tennis Championships.

  • Honored by many organizations throughout her career, Koger received a national community service award from USTA/Volvo/ITA in 1989 and another from USTA for Division III in 1996.

  • In February 2000, Ann Koger cancelled the Haverford College women’s tennis team training in Hilton Head, South Carolina to join the national boycott over the Confederate flag that flies over the state’s Capitol Building.

  • Honored as part of the 2007 International Tennis Hall of Fame Exhibit ‘Breaking the Barriers’ at the 2007 US Open in New York, N.Y. as an accomplished and pioneering professional tennis player and as a contributor to the exhibit through artifacts and oral history.

  • Selected as a member of the Black Tennis Hall of Fame Class of 2010 and was inducted into the Hall of Achievement at the Philadelphia Association of Black Sports and Culture

  • Devotion to tennis has earned her a spot in the United States Tennis Association (USTA) Middle States Hall of Fame Class of 2010.

  • Served as 2015 Coach of the United States Tennis Association Middle States Girls 18 National Team Championship.

  • Also In 2015, Koger was elected and appointed to a second term of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) Board of Directors and serves as a member of the ITA Small College Operating Committee

  • Named the 2016 Professional Tennis Registry (PTR) Coach of the Year

You have no clue, or perhaps you do, how encouraging your life experience is to those of us who read it – especially given the time in which you grew up. You have set so many standards in life, across the board. You are a paradigm in sports and in society because of living a life without walls that could not be stopped by the design of American society.

How do you now see your ability to live your life the way that you have? Do you find your life’s experience as incredible and encouraging as I do? Well, some people have asked me that before and to be very honest, I don’t think of myself in that light. I think of myself as someone who has set out to accomplish some things, and a person who has set out to do something that someone told me I couldn’t do, so I was determined to do it. And as far as most people around me, teachers and family, I never got any instruction that I couldn’t do that, because I was Black, I couldn’t do that because I was a woman. My mother’s favorite saying when somebody said you can’t do something was, “And why not?” She was always pushing back. And also in my family, my immediate family, my aunts and uncles were very accomplished educationally in different careers, so I thought nothing of saying, respectfully, whenever possible, saying what was on my mind, and doing the things that I thought I should be doing and that were appropriate to do and some things that nobody else had done, so I thought it would be fun to try to do it.

But I never thought of it as breaking a barrier and doing something that no one else would do, and people would gasp and say “wow, that’s something else there…”, I just never think of it like that. I just think of doing things and moving forward and helping people who want to do those same type of things or do some new things, and moving on.

Do you think that perhaps you see it that way because of the design of American society at the time? Well, I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, where I started my tennis training and we had the old Colored tennis courts and the White tennis courts, and we had the White clubs that we couldn’t go into, and we also had Jewish clubs because Baltimore had a very heavy Jewish population growing up, and it wasn’t so much being a child, and a young adult saying I have no courts to play on, but I played on the courts that we were allowed to play on. I knew it was something racial, but it was kind of interesting because you had to get permits to play on the White courts and the orange clay courts, but when they were done for the day, we could play on them – it was open to us. But they had first reservations on them.

The other thing that was helpful that I saw and benefitted from was that when the Jewish people were allowed to be on the court after White people and then with White people, they would help us by passing the permits to the adults to play, then when the adults were finished playing, the kids could come on and play, or if the courts were open we could play. So, it was never that we didn’t have facilities to play, it was that you had certain places where you could play.

But had to go through changes to play there. Yeah. They now have a monument near where the clay courts used to stand near the Flower House in Baltimore where a group of players from the two prominent Black tennis clubs, one of which was the Baltimore Tennis Club which was the outgrowth of the Monumental City Tennis Club who hosted the first American Tennis Association (ATA) Nationals in Baltimore in 1917, were arrested for trying to get onto the tennis courts and had to go to court, and I assume probably had to pay a fine for being disrespectful. Later on, a memorial came in its place, but after that trial, in the mid to late 1950s, that’s when barriers were beginning to be broken.

By their actions, it opened up a lot of things, not just in tennis, but for integration. And growing up, I saw those things as a kid. It wasn’t made a big deal to me, but I saw that happening and I knew that when the adults could do things, then that meant that I could do something.

So, as a child, you didn’t feel inundated with segregation. Well, I didn’t, because I was a kid - I was born in 1950, when you had all of those landmark cases getting ready to occur when I was young. I had an older cousin who was involved in the NAACP, aunts and uncles who were involved in a lot of the court actions as lawyers and teachers who were very community minded.

I wasn’t not educated about it, but because I had a family, along with their friends, who were so involved in it, I felt covered and protected in that, these people were going to make things happen for the people who couldn’t do them.

Growing up in Baltimore had its issues, the neighborhoods were challenged. Of course, in some neighborhoods we had a higher concentration of different racial groups and we as Black people tended to start to move behind Caucasian people in their neighborhoods, and even moreso, the Jewish people. We moved from a predominately African-American neighborhood into a predominately Jewish neighborhood. And the Jewish people moved out of town – they called it running (they were running from us).

The dynamics of being in school when I was in the African-American neighborhood that I grew up in, Madison Park/Bolton Hill where the Caucasian people had vacated, then we moved into the neighborhood that was Jewish, we were the 5th or 6th family that moved onto the block, and eventually they were waiting for their houses to be built in Pikesville, outside of Baltimore, and as their house were completed, they would move out and more Black families would move in.

And the same dynamic occurred in schools. The school I transferred from was all Black, all Black teachers – I didn’t know any White teachers. I moved to a school, when I was in the fifth grade that had predominately Jewish teachers - that was something different. My physical education teacher happened to be someone who grew up and went to college with my mother, and she was the only Black person in the school.

When there was a Jewish holiday, there was one 5th grade class left in the school, because all the Jewish kids were on holiday – it was just amazing, it threw me off. And our substitute would be a Black person. I could see things changing that way.

How it impacted tennis and my career, when I started playing tournaments in Baltimore, there were only a few junior tournaments, a few of us junior players which at that time were 17 and under (now it’s 18 and under), so it was only about four or five of us that played and we were in the junior development program of The Baltimore Tennis Club. We would play in tournaments and we’d all be in the same bracket, by coincidence we were told – over, and over again.

By the time this happened for the second or third time, even as kids we knew that if anybody came through, it could only be one. It could only be one person of Color that could come through. That occurred, coming from junior tennis, with me. At first I felt as though I wanted to win because I was playing in the sport and I’d honed my skills and I wanted to win the tournament. But I also knew that I had the burden of being or surviving through the draw as the only Black person to get to the finals. And then I knew that I was subject to being cheated, either by the person across the net, and sometimes the official, I had to learn how to handle that. The first time that happened to me, I tried to appeal to the desk, and they wouldn’t even come down and help. I was taught that in sports you had to be fair. I went back down to the court, and the young lady that I was playing against, started cheating even more. So, when the match was over, I had been taught that you had to shake hands, I went up there and shook her hand, and I told her, “I’m gonna keep playing tennis until I meet you again, and I’m gonna beat you.” She looked at me like I was from outer space. Then, of course, being a 12-year-old, I go up and sit down under a tree and boo hoo’d and made up my mind that either I was going to play this sport and overcome this mess – or quit. So, I just kept going.

After that, what pushed you forward? Were you driven to succeed in the sport because you loved it, or because of what happened? Well, it was that and a lot of other things. It was also because it was fun, and not a lot of people do it. Me and my sisters, on the block that we lived on, we were the only kids that played tennis – nobody else played, so that made us kind of unique. My mother played tennis, and eventually two people moved across the street, they played a little. And then, I started getting better and better at it, I was like “Oh wow!”

Then people started coming to my attention, such as Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe and Dr. Johnson’s troop that he took around to play tennis matches – mostly in tournaments that were just starting to accept Black people in tournaments, because there were still some that we couldn’t play in because they were on courts that we weren’t allowed on.

It was a lot of those different feelings that, I’m going to stick with this, and I’m gonna keep playing until “I” decide that I don’t want to play anymore. I wasn’t gonna let somebody decide for me what I wasn’t going to do anymore.

Given the circumstances within which you grew up, how do you look at tennis today, with specific regard to how Black children are allowed into the sport and what’s available to them. Do you see it as particularly evolved, or still needing some evolution? Well, I think there could be a whole lot more of an evolution. In coaching for the United States Tennis Association (USTA) middle states, I was coaching some junior teens, and when I started out coaching, of course I knew that there would be few to none youth that would qualify to go to national championship play. And over the years, I started seeing a few more, and a few more and it was…  I’m not a person to cry like that, but if I was, it was like “Wow!” There are more kids out here that are getting to the level where they can qualify for nationals and special teams. When I started coaching the Girls’ 18s National Teen Championship, each year I saw more and more and then one year I came, I almost did cry, because as I looked over the field of play I could see all the different kinds of juniors of Color, Chinese kids, African-Americans, kids that had come to this country and grown up from Haiti, East Indian players, and they looked like they were the predominant group that year – I just stood there in awe. I knew that we had finally come to a point where we had some participation over the one or two, and that they were out there playing national level of tennis.

Now as far as the other side of evolution, we still don’t have enough – tennis is an expensive sport. When I came up, they said it would cost upwards of $10,000 a year to be able to go out and play all of the tournaments that I needed to play to be nationally ranked, so I knew that figure had jumped up. That meant that those kids had come from affluent families, or they had some level of sponsorship either through their tennis section, their clubs, their families, their communities, and that they had places to train that had coaches that knew how to take them to the next level of skill accomplishment. In that area, I think we’ve done better, but I still think we have a ways to go, because under the president for the past two years of the USTA, Katrina Adams, I think she has made a great contribution, not just in face, people seeing her face, but because she’s on the inside and she knew those challenges growing up in Chicago playing tennis, that there was more work to be done and that work is not over.

But I think that we still need to find a way to get down to bringing tennis to the neighborhoods and keeping those kids in the sport of tennis. I think we can start to attract them, and mostly because the generation we’re dealing with, unfortunately, Althea Gibson is somebody they don’t know, and Arthur Ashe is somebody that they might know, but maybe because they’re older to them. They look at Venus and Serena Williams and they’re more realistic to them and are their heroes, coming from Compton and the family bringing them up and striving to make them champions under the father’s methods of teaching them tennis. They can look at them and actually relate.

Now of course those kids have another draw where they have basketball where it’s easier to get to the top in basketball and there’s always teams and somebody sponsoring them and they can earn their reputation of excellence right in their little community and hometown – with tennis, you have to travel to do that. Football the same thing, soccer has become the same kind of thing, tennis is not necessarily the neighborhood sport where somebody can help you financially get to the top. You have a few pros now who are teaching at the community level, but you actually need to have coaches with the knowledge of each level on the ladder that you climb to get you to the next level and beyond, and you might have to get a new coach… well, they cost money. Coaches cost money, tennis courts aren’t cheap, and they’re not cheap to maintain. There are a lot of variables out here that have helped the juniors and kids who have gravitated to tennis, but we have to find a way, and it’s mostly financially, to keep them in tennis.

Posted by Shelia

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