The training ground of tennis greats and the home of a civil rights activist could become a historic landmark

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) – Dr. Hubert Eaton’s home at 1406 Orange Street and 213 S 14th Street could be officially designated as a local historic landmark with the approval of the Wilmington City Council. The designation approval order will be considered at their meeting on Tuesday, September 20.

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

The city’s African American History Commission has written a report on the property’s significance to current owners, Lendward (Lenny) and JoAnn Simpson. The following details are taken from this report.

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

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

Dr. Eaton was also a successful tennis player: he was the first African American to win the North Carolina interscholastic tennis championship in 1932 at the age of 15. With George Stewart, he won the American Tennis Association men’s doubles championships in 1946, 1948, 1949 and 1951.

Althea Gibson was born to cotton croppers in South Carolina in 1927. At age 12, she became a paddle tennis champion in a Police Athletic League tournament in 1939. She started playing tennis and won the New York State ATA Championship in 1940 and two more ATA titles in 1944 and 1945. The following year, Dr. Eaton noticed Gibson at a tournament and brought him to Wilmington to live with his family and get an education.

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

Current owner Lenny Simpson was a tennis legend himself, having grown up alongside 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 mixed doubles national title four times in a row from 1967 to 1970. In 2013, he founded the One Love program Tennis to supervise young people at risk in studies and athletics.

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