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Changed the Game: Lucy Diggs Slowe was 1st Black woman to win national title, and it's a footnote to her extraordinary life

Shalise Manza Young
·Yahoo Sports Columnist
·7-min read

 

"Changed the Game" is a Yahoo Sports series dedicated to the women who are often overlooked, under-appreciated or simply deserve more flowers for their contributions to women's sports history.

It is a testament to the breadth and number of accomplishments Lucy Diggs Slowe piled up during her extraordinary but relatively brief life that her athletic achievements are but a footnote.

Celebrated first and foremost as an educator, Slowe was also the first African American woman to win a national championship in any sport. In 1917, while already a teacher and school administrator, she claimed the women's singles title at the first American Tennis Association championships, held in Baltimore's segregated Druid Hill Park.

Because the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association barred Black players, the ATA was founded to give African Americans from Black tennis clubs up and down the East Coast a place to send their best players to compete. While other sports associations created by and for African Americans out of necessity have largely disappeared, the ATA is still holding tournaments, and was back at Druid Hill Park in 2017 to celebrate its centennial championships.

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According to "Faithful to the Task at Hand: The Life of Lucy Diggs Slowe," a 2012 biography, Slowe was a member of the women's tennis club while an undergraduate at Howard University, with her family calling her desire to play "insatiable." A fellow player said of her, "She may have been Lucy 'Slowe,' but on the court she was Lucy 'Fast.'"

Despite her professional duties, Slowe made time for tennis; reports in African American newspapers said she won ladies' singles cups in Philadelphia, New York City and Baltimore, a ladies' doubles cup in Philadelphia, and partnered with Talley Holmes — a Dartmouth graduate who, despite his significant talent, was not allowed to be on the college's tennis team — for mixed doubles cup wins in New York and Philadelphia.

From struggling with ABCs to founding AKA

Believed to have been born on July 4, 1883, in Berryville, Virginia, on the northernmost edge of the state, Slowe was the youngest of seven children. Her father died when she was a baby and her mother when she was just 6. After her mother's death, she and a sister were raised by her paternal Aunt Martha in Lexington, Virginia. After only a month at Randolph Street School, the town's school for Black children, Aunt Martha got a note from the teacher that young Lucy was a nuisance and unable to learn her ABCs.

Quite a start for the woman who would then go on to become valedictorian of her graduating class at Howard in 1908.

"Faithful to the Task" says that Slowe was very scared of her Aunt Martha, but Martha Price cared enough for her nieces that she homeschooled them for a time, and when Slowe was 13, she made the decision to move the family to Baltimore because she believed the schools were better, though of course they were still segregated.

By the time she reached Baltimore Colored High School, Slowe had become quite the student and athlete. She was a member of the school's first basketball team for girls and received a scholarship to Howard, though she was 21 when she graduated.

Howard University then, as it remains now, was a prestigious college for African American students. While there, Slowe was not just a member of the tennis club, but also was one of the founders of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the first sorority for Black women. After graduating, she became a teacher and principal in schools in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., earning a master's in education from Columbia University in 1915, and was the founding principal of Washington's first middle school for Black students in 1919.

It was while there, in 1922, that Howard asked her to return, as both a member of the English Department faculty and as the school's first dean of women, the first African American woman to hold that position at any college in the country.

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The first Black woman dean

As dean of women, Slowe encouraged her charges to be their full selves. She developed a women's campus, a separate area for their "physical and social development as well as for the training of their minds," as she explained. She began an annual women's dinner, where male students were invited but could only observe from a balcony. Slowe encouraged female students to explore coursework beyond what was expected of women at the time; in 1937, she wrote that Black colleges prolonged the "infancy" of female students by not nurturing them toward independence.

Slowe helped organize the National Association of College Women and served as its first president, was the first president of the National Association of Women's Deans and Advisors of Colored Schools and was also the first African American to address the largely white National Association of Women Deans, in 1931.

While she enjoyed being part of the social scene in Washington, Slowe also spoke of the open racism Black residents and visitors of the nation's capital endured, even those who were educated and professionals.

Slowe's words from a 1937 radio address, intimating that no amount of achievement by Black people is good enough for some bigots, still ring true today: “The snobbery, the disdain, which many of our white citizens show for Negroes regardless of their personal worth, is germinating in both groups seeds whose fruit will eventually destroy all of us unless rooted out before they come to fruition.”

Though she had been embraced by the administration when she began at Howard, Rev. Dr. Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, who became the school's first African American president in 1926, was terrible to Slowe and intent on marginalizing her to the narrow roles he believed women should hold. He cut her department's budget, refused her requests for pay raises, tried to force her to live on campus like dormitory "matrons" of the past and suggested she leave her post as dean and only teach, which she did not do.

Johnson was so cruel to Slowe that when she died in 1937, her family made it clear that he would have no role in her funeral.

For more than 20 years, Slowe shared her life and her home with Mary Burrill, who was a playwright and also an educator. The two never publicly acknowledged a romantic relationship so it's up to interpretation, but they were devoted to one another. When Johnson wanted to force Slowe to live on campus, she fought it; it would have meant leaving the Queen Anne Victorian she shared with Burrill. A 2019 application to mark that home on Kearny Street NE as a National Historic Landmark notes that it was the residence of "the most prominent same-sex female relationship in Washington, D.C., during the early 20th century."

While an off-campus dormitory named for Slowe has since been converted to apartments, last year Howard students got the chance to name one of the National Zoo's two new female bison — the school's mascot is a bison — and chose the name Lucy, in honor of their trailblazing administrator.