Black History Moment: Nashville Davis Cup and the protest of 1978

Arthur Ashe served as Captain of the Davis Cup five times.

Last week, the USTA announced that Belmont University has been selected as the host site for the 2018 Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Group Quarterfinal to be held April 6-8. Founded in 1900, Davis Cup is the largest annual international team competition in sport with approximately 135 nations competing each year. The matchup between the U.S. and Belgium will be played at the Curb Event Center. While attending the announcement at Belmont, I noticed that only a handful of the dozens there knew about the last time the Davis Cup came to Music City.

“The Davis Cup is to tennis what the World Cup is to Soccer—it’s the biggest world-wide team competition in the sport,” said Belmont University President Dr. Bob Fisher. “To be able to host this event at Belmont University and in Nashville is an opportunity to put our university and our city on the world stage. This quarterfinal event with Belgium, the No. 2 seed, will be one of the highlights of the tennis year. We can’t wait to show Belmont’s and Nashville’s hospitality to the world.”

Tennis Channel will present live daily coverage of the World Group Quarterfinal; watch on channel 217 on DirecTV and / Xfinity channel 773 in the middle Tennessee area. The best-of-five match series between the U.S. and Belgium begins on Friday, April 6, with two singles matches featuring each country’s No. 1 player against the other country’s No. 2 player. Saturday’s schedule features the pivotal doubles match. And the final day of play on Sunday features the two “reverse singles” matches, when the No. 1 players square off, followed by the No. 2 players meeting each other in the final match. All matches are best-of-five tiebreak sets; the first country to win three matches wins the tie. A revised schedule for Sunday may take place if a team clinches in the third or fourth match. The U.S. comes to Nashville after defeating Serbia in the World Group First Round earlier this month, 3-1, in Nis, Serbia. The winner this time advances to the World Group Semifinal, Sept. 14-16.

Davis Cup will come to Nashville for the first time in 40 years, when the U.S. hosted South Africa March 17-19 in 1978 in Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gymnasium. When that event was coming, the largest protest march since the 1960’s was held to protest the team from the South Africa, which was still in the throes of racial segregation — legal apartheid. While demonstrators outside of the Vanderbilt University Memorial Gymnasium chanted “Don’t play with apartheid” and similar protest slogans, Harold Solomon of Silver Spring, Md., beat Bernie Milton, 7-5, 6-4, 6-2, and gave the United States an insurmountable 3-1 lead in the North American Zone Davis Cup final. Vitas Gerulaitis of Kings Point, L.I., made the final score 4-1, breezing past Byron Bertram, 6-3, 6-3, 6-0. The victory moved the United States into the American Zone final against Chile in Santiago Sept. 15 to 17 of that year. Vanderbilt lost big financially, as there were way more empty seats than spectators in the 9,000-seat arena. Only 1,260 persons showed up, meaning there were about four times as many protestors as attendees.

A broad spectrum coalition of the NAACP, campus leaders and students from all of Nashville’s colleges and universities, anti-apartheid groups and individuals from around the world numbering around 5,000 came together. The rally on Saturday, with Ozzie Davis presiding, featured speakers Dick Gregory, Benjamin Hooks, Joseph Lowery, Bayard Rustin, Margaret Bush Wilson, Judge William H. Booth, Clarence Coleman, and others in Centennial Park. It was a beautiful sunny day, and I remember well the vibes from the anti-apartheid protesters as we spoke out against the racist regime which at the time still held Nelson Mandela in prison on Robben Island, and against Vanderbilt University, which also held significant investments in South Africa. For a thorough recap of the 1978 events, go online to Google Books and look up “The March on Nashville” by Gloster B. Current, in The Crisis, June/July 1978 – Vol. 85, No. 6, pp. 198 – 202.

The times have changed. Arthur Ashe served as Captain of the Davis Cup five times (1981-85) and amassed a record of 13-3 during his tenure, and this year’s host Belmont University is a beacon of openness and diversity. Tickets are on sale to the general public as of Friday, Feb. 23, at 10 a.m. Three-day ticket packages for Friday, Saturday and Sunday will be sold at prices ranging from $240 to $750 ($80 to $250 per day), representing the greatest initial ticket value. Tickets may be purchased by visiting the USTA website.