By Keith Stokes, special to What’s Up Newp.
“If there was a watering-place in America where respectable, refined, and well-bearing-colored ladies and gentlemen have as little reason to feel their color as in Newport.”
– Colored American Newspaper, 1886
Newport is internationally recognized for its Colonial Era structures, Gilded Age mansions, historic landscapes, and deep maritime history. However, few would know that Newport would also be host to many prominent African heritage business entrepreneurs through the centuries. These men and women leveraged their commercial enterprises to promote economic security and build wealth that would invest in and advance African heritage civic, recreational, social, and political interests. It is not surprising to find that Newport’s African heritage commerce leaders would also become the leaders within their community to advance equal rights, civic, and political leadership.
Led by the Progressive Literary Society (1877), Women’s League Newport (1895), Sumner Political Club (1898), and the Newport Branch NAACP (1919), Newport became a magnet for leading African heritage families, many attracted by the numerous civil rights and social uplift organizations. Men, women, and families of color would travel to Newport from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington to participate in a rare opportunity for persons of color for unrestricted social and cultural interchange. At the time, Newport was host to abundant African heritage social and political gatherings that ran the broad spectrum of political rallies, social events, and religious revivals.
Today’s historic Newport neighborhoods with names like Historic Hill, Bellevue Avenue, Top of the Hill, West Broadway, and the Yachting Village once comprised the heart of the early African heritage enclaves where people lived, worked, and worshipped. These neighborhoods were each anchored by one of four historic African heritage congregations. Like most communities of color, the center of the African heritage community in Newport, then and today, is the church.
The Union Colored Congregational Church on Division Street, Newport’s first African heritage church and congregation chartered in 1824, was an evolution of the Free African Union Society of 1780. Later, Mt Zion AME, Shiloh Baptist, and Mt Olivet Baptist Churches would thrive within the city. These four vibrant congregations were the center of religious life and provided an essential outlet for social, recreational, educational, and political exchange. Rev. James Lucas established the Newport Branch of the NAACP at the Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in 1919. This church would also serve as the Old Hometown Tennis and Athletic Club’s playing courts on northern Thames Street.
The Old Hometown Tennis and Athletic Club was established in Newport in 1927 by leaders associated with all four African heritage churches, the Newport NAACP, and other civic associations. The backyard tennis club of Mt Olivet Baptist Church hosted tournaments on regulation-size courts. The Club was part of a broader strategy to instill “social uplift and physical culture” among Newport’s young. Founders of the Old Hometown Tennis Club included Cromwell Payne West, who relocated to Newport in the late 19th century from Philadelphia. A graduate of the Howard University Pharmacy School, West would operate a successful drugstore at Caleb Earl and West Broadway. He was also actively engaged with the NAACP, Newport Colored Democratic Club, and other civic organizations in Newport. Other founding members of the tennis club were also actively associated with these organizations.
The origins of the Old Hometown Tennis Club and many other recreational activities that dominated the African heritage Newport landscape of the era arose when African heritage people were active inhabitants of a new type of urban setting – the resort community. People, and their social and recreational activities, came from all over the country, and in some cases, the world, converging upon Gilded Age Newport. New and dynamic sporting events from tennis, golf, biking, automobile racing, fishing, and sailing were popular recreational pastimes during Newport’s vibrant summer season.
Despite a time recognized as the “Progressive Era,” outward discrimination and restrictions on recreational activities were a real concern for Newport citizens of African heritage to overcome. The story of the Old Hometown Tennis Club’s evolution within Gilded Age Newport is appropriately coined “Creative Survival.” Despite the Jim Crow laws of the American South and the Jim Crow traditions actively prevalent in Newport and the North, African heritage people came together to advance their economic and political rights through social interchange and recreational gatherings.