Video from Joseph Ellerbee, Ebony Racquet Club President
Surrounded by serene trees and grass covered hills is the home of the Ebony Racquet Club (ERC), located on the south east side of Raleigh, NC at the Biltmore Hills Community Center Tennis Park. In the early years, the Biltmore Hills Community was a sought-after location for elite, successful African American homeowners. A group of these elite individuals – primarily professionals and small business owners from different backgrounds – recognized that although their community was known primarily for great athletes in basketball, football and baseball, the popularity of sport of tennis was spreading and that there was an immediate need for a local tennis club. Using a collaboration of their business skills they elected a Board of Directors and, in early 1975, founded the Ebony Racquet Club, a 501c3 non-profit organization committed to promoting an appreciation of tennis, athletic excellence, and sportsmanship as well as providing a venue and popular meeting place for all interested in the sport. They petitioned the city to build tennis courts to meet the needs of the ERC. Together they withstood project barriers to see the development of these courts and the beginning of a successful organization. John Smith was elected the first president of the ERC and a tournament was held that same year. The founding board members included: Willie Sinclair, Mike Spears, William Cheeks, John Johnson, Nuri Johnson, Al Newkirk, Paul Jervay, Jimmy Penny and Gerald Lappa. ERC quickly grew and, over time, would become well-established in the community, solidifying its place in the City of Raleigh’s history.
The Ebony Racquet Club was the first black tennis club that competed on a local level in Raleigh. The ERC has continued to revise and reinvent itself through 41 years of ups and downs – remaining under the direction of strong leadership committed to serving the community. Over the years many have contributed to the growth of the ERC including the aforementioned president, John Smith, followed by a host of others including Presidents Mike Morgan, Jan Sinclair, Harold Booker, Lawrence Williams, Brenda Freelaw, Donald Haith, Nicole Sullivan, Robert Braswell and Billy Battle. Billy Battle was the longest reigning president of the Ebony Racquet Club from approximately 2006 to 2011. Billy started his reign with five board members: President Billy Battle, Vice President Harold Johnson, Treasurer Rodger Floyd and Secretary Lawrence Williams. It was Vice President Harold Johnson who recruited and started training the first Ebony kids. On and off throughout the years, Harold was joined by Coaches Femmy Om and Earle White - working tirelessly with Ebony’s youth… eventually coaching them to the State tournament. Still, the ERC had been in a steady decline when Billy took office and only escalated thereafter. The decline in membership, dissatisfaction with the board members, and downward spiral with the 501c3 created the onset of the new generations of members.
Billy struggled to maintain some order in the club to no avail offering more of him with little or no support. Members felt that help was offered but never incorporated into the structure and growth of the club. It was evident that ERC ideas were stagnated and so was the growth of the 501c3. The popularity of the Club was becoming a thing of the past. Much of the history of the ERC became a nostalgic memory that was lost in time. Gone was the well-known cliché’ - The Mercedes Club, exquisite taste of the most elite. Many of the visionaries moved on to new places and new interest to absorb their time and money taking much of the history with them. . Left was a despairing Club that inevitable would collapse without new ideas, funding, and most of all no respect for the Ebony Racquet club. History would repeat its self-more than once with ERC. Much of its rich history would be lost. The great historian is quick to speak on the repetition of the known and unknown sayings about no history. John W. Gardner wrote “History never look like history when you are living through it.” Ebony has learned and lived! “If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.” -Pearl Buck
Billy had a vision for the Ebony Racquet Club and was willing to give his time, money, and effort to make the Club a success. All those who did not know the history of Ebony thought that Billy was the first visionary and the first and only president. He was involved and dedicated to the purpose and mission of the Club. He was a fierce defender in what he believed Ebony Racquet Club should and could achieve with a legacy that reflects its Icon. He is an Icon of Ebony Racquet Club for good or bad, right or wrong; He was for the good of Ebony Racquet Club. Even the Lion Hearts would cringe at some of his antidotes as he pushed forward with pride in what he thought was his rightful duty to deliver his version of his speech in a crowded room with no resolutions in what one thought of him. You could either respect him for having the guts to say what should have been said…..or coward in shame of how you thought he should have delivered his opinion. That is Mr. Billy Battle, a historian for the old and the new. Yet, in 2011 Billy was voted out as president and Joseph Ellerbee was voted in to replace him. A new era had begun.
Today the ERC continues to flourish under the leadership of President Joseph Ellerbee, Vice president Deno John, Coach Chris Brown, Coach Keisha Price, Advisor Queen Hargrove and Secretaries Latonya Hargrove-Boykin and Vonda Easterling – continuing to build upon the solid foundation of the ERC by volunteering much of their time to ensure each event is a success. The activities throughout tennis season include clinics, junior and senior events, competition with area league tennis teams, team match play, and both singles and doubles tournaments. The club league captain Deno John encourages adult members to participate at all levels through ladder challenge competition to improve their skills for overall performance and to strive for victory.
The ERC hosts youth summer league tennis teams and supports tennis programs for those with special skills while encouraging them all to strive for excellence. The ERC believes that by instilling the appreciation of hard work, discipline and good sportsmanship in today’s youth it will develop a sense of fair play and camaraderie in tomorrow’s leaders.
Coaches Keisha Price (Coach K) and Chris Brown work with intensity to cultivate the youth in tennis, physical fitness and life lessons for a better future. Because of their great efforts, the youth are intense and passionate about acquiring the knowledge to enhance their skills to improve and succeed.
The Ebony Junior Team Tennis (JTT) program has worked with NC Tennis, the Boys and Girls Club and First Baptist Church over the course of the last 3 years. During the summer, Ebony JTT hosts summer camps for over 100 kids from their math and tennis programs. Ebony JTT currently has 8 teams: 5 junior team tennis teams ages 8U, 10U, 12U, 14U and 18Golds; and 3 Junior Championship teams who are in the running to advance to 2016 State Championship. The Ebony JTT program has been extremely successful with multiple teams winning and advancing to finals in End of Season Tournament play; and the 14U team placing 3rd in State Championship 2015.
The Ebony Racquet Club is most thankful to the remarkable parents that support the efforts of the coaches and displays enthusiasm and interest in their children’s tennis development. We believe that a sound tennis program requires a collaboration of great board members, coaches, players, families, and communities. We look forward to continued growth and success in the years ahead!