Louis Beverly jogged in place in his black and white Adidas jumpsuit, his knees nearly reaching his abdomen as he warmed up to play tennis at Druid Hill Park.
“I’m not dead,” he proclaimed.
It’s something he’s constantly grateful for, considering how close he came to death in 2014. Beverly was on his way home from the Druid Hill Park tennis courts when a gate swung open on Wyman Park Drive, smashed through his windshield and punctured his head. After weeks in a coma, he woke to dozens of cards from visitors. Also among them was a bright neon tennis ball signed by his decades-long friend Ronnie Diggs, who visited him every single day.
Diggs said he thought, “I am gonna give him this tennis ball to motivate him, to will him to get back to where he was.”
Tennis. Druid Hill Park. They’re the main arteries in Diggs and Beverly’s friendship. And they’re not the only ones.
Many Black tennis players are sustaining the legacy of playing in Druid Hill Park, a location that once had segregated courts. But there’s more to it than heading to the courts on a nice day. Just as meaningful as the history are the decades of friendships, passions for the sport, and humble inclinations to pass on the skill.
“You can have a bad day, terrible day, wife might want to put you out, but you can come out here to have a good time. … This is our country club,” said Beverly, 64, who grew up playing with his mother in Washington, D.C.
The set of tennis courts where he and a group of devotees frequently play, known as the Black courts during the days of Jim Crow, sit next to Safety City, an attraction used to teach children about street lights and signage, St. Paul’s Cemetery, and what used to be the Black swimming pool, which is now filled in. Players refer to these courts as “up top” and there are also courts “down bottom” near a Baltimore City Recreation and Parks administration building.
In the first few days of October, when fall seemingly stole a few days of summer temperatures, players hit the courts in the late afternoon and early evening. Some players have a group chat to coordinate meeting up.
The courts welcome a very scrimmage-like setup, hosting singles, doubles or folks just hitting around. There are some who’ve been part of tennis clubs and others who simply share the love for the sport. A retired social worker, a bishop and veterans — people from all walks of life.
Diggs said he almost always runs into someone he knows. He and fellow player Donnie Fleet, 69, can often be caught jokingly sniping at each other. Like when Diggs calls his friend “Fleet the Cheat.” And Fleet contemplates whether Diggs can even see the lines on the court. It’s all in good fun. Together they’ve competed in the senior Olympics and other tournaments.
“Some of [the other players] are headaches,” but they’re such good friends, said Fleet, who’s played at Druid Hill Park for at least 30 years and Leakin Park for another 10.
There’s an unspoken code at the courts, too. On certain courts, there’s an expectation that one is coming with a level of skill. And if it’s not up to par? It’s noticed quickly, several players said. There’s also a constant acknowledgement of the significance of the park, especially to Black tennis players.
“It’s a lot of history in these courts, and that’s why we all come here,” Beverly said.
In 1948, Black and white tennis players protested Druid Hill Park’s policy of segregation and played tennis on the former clay courts next to the conservatory. Over 20 people were arrested. Baltimore parks wouldn’t be fully desegregated until the 1950s.
The Baltimore Tennis Club is also a staple of Druid Hill Park, and it’s one of the very few African American tennis clubs on the East Coast.
Members helped create the American Tennis Association, a collaboration of the country’s Black tennis clubs. The park hosted the association’s first-ever national championship in 1917. Today, players still talk about how the tournament hosted phenomenal players like Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson and still attracts up-and-coming talent.
Then there are the personal histories, the stories that tie individuals to the sport and the park. Funerals, weddings, the births of children — many players can recall each other’s milestones.
Michael Cheatham, 75, met his wife playing at Druid Hill Park in 1985, and his mother played there before him. Their anniversary this year coincided with a picnic, where players plan to eat, listen to music and, of course, play tennis at the “Wakefield Courts” at Leakin Park. Though many players got their start at Druid Hill Park, some consider Leakin Park and elsewhere their home courts, and they fostered different tennis clubs.
“Most of my closest friends I’ve met on the tennis court,” Cheatham said.
Horace “Petey” Smith, 78, another longtime tennis player who’s been going to Druid Hill Park since he was a boy, approached Cheatham while at the picnic that September day. They call themselves the “bionic brothers” because of their single or double hip and knee replacements. Smith put his arms in the air, imitating how he walks through metal detectors.
Shelena Sanderson, 55, picked up her first racket in college and never put it down. When she’s not competing in United States Tennis Association tournaments or refereeing matches, she’s out at Leakin Park or Druid Hill Park playing with the guys.
“Coming out here I can relieve my stress,” she said.
The competition can be cutthroat, but that’s what some like.
Shay Yarberough, 54, considers himself a top contender, and was introduced to the courts by Diggs in the 1980s. By age 17, Yarberough was playing in adult tournaments, he said. And though he’s open to competition, he doesn’t like to partner with just anybody.
“Doubles is like a marriage. It’s an unspoken language,” he said, explaining the intricacies of playing alongside someone.
Yarberough never paid for a tennis lesson, but learned a bit from a neighbor in Edmondson Village, he said. A lot of the players are self-taught and shared what they knew or learned with others.
Cheatham even taught his friend William Johnson back when Coppin State University was Coppin State College.
“It’s fun, good exercise and we like to talk trash,” Johnson said.
When it comes to learning the sport, several nod to Ray Moore, a tennis player in his 80s referred to as one of the “classiest tennis players out there” by someone who walked past him at the picnic. Moore humbly shrugged off the praise and said he simply teaches people a few things here and there, and starts with letting them have fun. He learned from a coach at Frederick Douglass High School. Diggs said he remembers playing Moore back in the day, losing and having to wait months for a rematch because Moore lived in California at the time.
There’s also Ron Scott, 76, who picked up tennis by watching others at the park over 40 years ago. He was a tennis coach at McDonogh School in Owings Mills and also taught youth through the Baltimore Tennis Patrons, a nonprofit that provides opportunities to play and compete. Both of his children went to college on tennis scholarships after learning from him.
Players like Moore, Scott and Bernard Clark, 87, who started playing tennis in 1959 and tends to watch more than play now, have also seen the park change. Moore said it seems like everything is “for sale” at Druid Hill Park and it’s supposed to be the people’s park. Clark remembers when the zoo was free and boats could be rented for 50 cents an hour. The courts also attracted younger kids and it was harder to get a spot, said Scott.
Royce E. Jones, president of the Baltimore Tennis Club, thinks there is still interest among young people, but it’s not as strong as it was back in the 1970s or ’80s. The Baltimore Tennis Club teaches children at all skill levels with their programming and they also have an annual juniors tournament.
Today, the wait times seem to vary. Four tennis courts are being resurfaced and one is being turned into two pickleball courts, according to Baltimore City Recreation and Parks. Even if people aren’t playing, they’re set up sitting on one of the benches or in their own lawn chairs talking to whoever’s waiting or watching. Players aren’t just local, either. People from Brazil and Russia have casually played on the courts. Clark said he’s always learning something new in conversations about politics, sports and even spirituality.
Ismail “Izzy” Bibangamba from Tanzania found the courts by chance in 2020 after a Google search. He came not really knowing how to play, but played a few rounds.
“I just come here and sit and laugh. They’re just so funny. … now I whoop their asses,” he said.
“Only in his mind,” Smith quickly replied.
Between the grunts and thuds of balls hitting rackets, Beverly said he’s determined to teach his grandsons how to play. Paying it forward, he said, is what it’s all about.
“We have to pass the love to the next generation. We’re just passing that baton on,” Beverly said.