Born 19 September 1938
Married John Bryant
"The first black player to win a U.S. National tennis championship" (Girl's under-15 title in 1953).
Pioneering African-American tennis player retains her fiery spirit
By Mic Huber
Published: Sunday, March 25, 2012 at 5:23 p.m.
The braided pig-tails in her hair have long since disappeared, gone the way of wooden tennis rackets. Though her hair is now short and graying, the fiery spirit that helped Lorraine Williams Bryant blaze a trail in tennis clearly remains.
Lorraine Williams Bryant, with her granddaughter Alana Sherman, 14, of Lakewood Ranch, was the first African America female to win a national junior tennis title in the U.S.
Always on the move, the Sarasota resident's days remain filled with appointments, travel and tennis.
Bryant, nearing her 74th birthday and now living in Sarasota, talks of compiling a book about her life, from growing up poor in Chicago during the early civil rights movement, rising to a high level in what was, not very long ago, considered a white-dominated sport.
Long before African-American sisters Serena and Venus Williams exploded onto the world tennis scene, a small 14-year-old girl with the same surname — and a dogged sense of determination — became the first black player to win a U.S. National tennis championship.
It was two years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., when Bryant made history by winning the U.S. Lawn Tennis national 15s tennis title in 1953 at Kalamazoo, Mich.
She accomplished something that no black player who came before her — including tennis greats Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe — had done. She did it despite not really understanding the significance at the time.
"I really wasn't that aware," she says. "I just liked the game. You kind of live in a shelter as kids. We didn't know what was going on in the rest of the world."
It wasn't until years later, when she had a chance to speak to Ashe at a professional tournament, that she discovered the implication of her win.
Then married, with two children, Bryant walked up to Ashe after one of his matches and told him how glad she was to meet him. To her amazement, Ashe asked her if her maiden name was Louise Williams.
"He said, 'You are praising me? I kept up with you. You were like my mentor,'" Bryant recalls. "Then he gave me a big hug. I will never forget that."
Making history was not on her mind when Bryant looked across the alley from the small house where she lived and saw the Chicago Prairie Tennis Club, the oldest black tennis facility in the country.
She was fascinated by the men and women hitting tennis balls back and forth across the net on the old, dusty clay courts. There were no thoughts at the time about tournament titles and trophies.
"I just felt like I wanted to go play," she said. "I am not sure if we hadn't lived next to the tennis club if I would have ever played that game."
Or how her life might have been different.
One of eight children of a widowed working mother who put herself through beautician school, Bryant was intrigued by the game and eager to find an outlet for her energy.
"We were poor but we didn't know it, because everyone else in the neighborhood was, too," Bryant recalls. Her first racket was nothing more than two pieces of plywood nailed together.
And there were few problems getting tennis balls. With no fences on the side of the court, tennis balls would often roll toward the alley. But convincing players to give up match time to a skinny girl proved more of a challenge.
"People worked hard," she says. "Most of the old black folks wouldn't play with me. When they got the chance to play, they didn't want to be playing with kids."
Yet she found a few games and quickly showed enough promise that, at age 11, she caught the eye of Dr. Willis Ewell, a dentist and tennis aficionado, and his wife, Dorothy, a former black tennis champion.
Tennis quickly became her passion. The Ewells became almost surrogate parents, teaching Williams about the game and the world.
"Doc wanted me to be known as a good tennis player, not just a black girl tennis player," Bryant says.
That meant overcoming the racism of the era by remaining composed.
It also meant playing tennis daily for hours at a time. On weekends she would go to the Ewells farm in Michigan, a place where Doc Ewell built a tennis court and constructed a ball machine for Bryant to use. He also arranged private lessons with Chet Murphy, a respected professional.
The more she played, the more she won. And it wasn't long before Bryant was considered a tennis prodigy.
Soon she was playing an exhibition match against Maureen "Little Mo" Connolly. Then there was another exhibition, this time against Gibson.
News about the talented left-handed player with an unusual two-handed backhand spread. On May 21, 1952, a wire story about Bryant's exploits appeared on the front page of the sports section of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, with a headline reading: "Lorraine Williams, Chicago Wonder Girl, Is Following In Tennis Footsteps Of Prodigious Maureen Connolly."
"It was fun," she says about the attention and opportunities she gained through tennis.
Though she eventually played at Forest Hills, then the site of the U.S. Open, and won several tournaments, she never quite retraced the footsteps of Connolly. An invitation to play at Wimbledon went unused due to lack of money.
Bryant eventually married John Bryant, a college classmate of Martin Luther King Jr., and had two daughters. She became a nurse, a job she held for 32 years.
Yet tennis remained a big part of her life. She continued to play as an adult and one of the honors she is most proud of is winning a top sportsmanship award in the city of Chicago.
"It showed that I was not only a pretty good tennis player, but also a good sport," she says. "It was quite an honor."
And tennis was a big part of her family life. Her husband, who died in 2009, played, as did her daughters and grandchildren, including Alana Sherman, a student at Out of Door Academy. "We have been a tennis family," Bryant says.
Today Bryant lives in Sarasota, not far from her daughter, Yvette, who is married to St. Louis Rams assistant football coach Ray Sherman.
Most of the trophies from those teenage triumphs are no longer around. "I don't need all that stuff. I am not that kind of person," Bryant says.
What she has are the memories.
"Oh, I have so many memories," she says. "And I have a wonderful family. Those are the things that are important. I have been blessed. Every morning, when I get up, I thank God."
1954 USLTA Yearbook provided date of birth
[Thanks to Jimbo and Lkk for this information]