Training ground to tennis greats and home to civil rights activist could become historic landmark

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – The Dr. Hubert Eaton House at 1406 Orange Street and 213 S 14th Street could be officially designated as a historic local landmark given approval by the Wilmington City Council. The ordinance to approve the designation will be considered at their meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 20.

The property was given a placard from the Historic Wilmington Foundation in December of 2020, and now the Historic Preservation Commission is recommending the local landmark designation. The proposal also comes with a strong recommendation from the city’s planning staff based on its alignment with the city’s historic preservation guidelines.

The City’s Commission of African American History wrote a report about the significance of the property for the current property owners, Lendward (Lenny) and JoAnn Simpson. The following details come from that report.

The Decover House, as it was called when it was built in 1903 on Orange Street, sits right next to a regulation-size tennis court on 213 S 14th Street. Dr. Hubert Eaton and his wife Celeste Eaton bought the house in 1945. Dr. Eaton was the first African American physician at New Hanover Medical Center, and he spent years fighting to integrate sports, healthcare and education.

Dr. Eaton’s efforts led to the desegregation of New Hanover County Schools, the Municipal Golf Course of Wilmington, the New Hanover County Library and the James Walker Memorial Hospital. He eventually served on the Board of Trustees for what is now Cape Fear Community College and the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Dr. Eaton was a successful tennis player as well: being the first African American to win the North Carolina Interscholastic Tennis Championship in 1932 at 15 years old. With George Stewart, he won American Tennis Association Men’s Doubles Championships in 1946, 1948, 1949 and 1951.

Althea Gibson was born to cotton farm sharecroppers in South Carolina in 1927. At 12 years old, she became a paddle tennis champion in a Police Athletic League tournament in 1939. She started playing tennis and won the ATA New York State Championship in 1940 and two other ATA titles in 1944 and 1945. The next year, Dr. Eaton noticed Gibson at a tournament and brought her to Wilmington to live with his family and gain an education.

She, Dr. Eaton and Robert Johnson practiced together on the property’s tennis court. She becomes the first African American accepted into the United States Lawn Tennis Association in 1951 and then won the 1956 French Open, the 1957-58 Wimbledon Championships and the 1957-58 U.S. Open. She won 11 Grand slam tournaments and has been inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the Black Athletes Hall of Fame and the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.

Current owner Lenny Simpson was a tennis legend himself, growing up next door to the Eaton family and Robert Johnson. He was the youngest man to play in what is now the US Open in 1964, and he won the ATA National Mixed Doubles title four times in a row from 1967 to 1970. In 2013, he founded the One Love Tennis Program to mentor at-risk youth in academics and athletics.

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