Park courts renamed after local tennis great

Local tennis legend Carnis Poindexter (right) overjoyed during the unveiling of the Rivers Edge Park Tennis Courts marker officially bearing his name. Mayor Sherman Lea with a smile looks on. — Photos by Eva Shaw-Gill

by Jazmine Otey

A sizeable crowd gathered May 30 for an event that would be remembered as the day the tennis courts at River’s Edge Park were renamed after Roanoke tennis legend Carnis Poindexter.

As a tennis devotee of local prominence, Poindexter was celebrated for his tenacity as an important mile-stone in Roanoke history. From inspiring those around him to providing opportunities for individuals to attend college through sports scholarships–the high-spirited, yet humble man has left an unforgettable mark on the area.

“We’re honoring the courage and fortitude of a man who has done tremendous work for Roanoke over the past 60 years,” said Michael Clark, Roanoke’s director of Parks and Recreation. “His athletics and personal achievements are numerous and the very reason why we’re gathered here today.”

In 1957, Poindexter participated in the American Tennis Association, the only tournament at the time in which an African American could compete before integration. His drive and dedication soon caught the eye of Dr. E.D. Downing, an award-winning tennis player, and Downing soon took him under his wing.

During Poindexter’s summer before his senior year, he woke up faithfully at 5:30 a.m to practice tennis with Downing. As the early morning air nipped his arms and he felt his heart beat begin to quicken, Poindexter only pushed harder. He had a goal in mind and he knew it would take true dedication to reach it. Each day, his eager fingers flipped through the pages of tennis books for foreign concepts and techniques.

At the time, Poindexter didn’t have the aid of professional training, but he didn’t let that hinder him and continued fervently shaping his craft.

In September 1957, Poindexter received a full tennis scholarship to attend Arkansas AM & N, thanks to the guidance of Downing. Since then Poindexter felt as if it was his Christian duty to inspire other individuals in a way parallel to the way Downing inspired him.

Carnis Poindexter speaks at the renaming service honoring him as a significant local tennis personality.

“I called Dr. Downing my angel,” Poindexter said, “So, I took over coaching tennis where he left off and that was my objective, to send others to college as I had been sent.”

Poindexter has always made sure his primary focus was on his players. He claims it was more important t to concentrate on them because he wanted his players to attend college as he did. Mayor Sherman Lea claims Poindexter created a “pipeline for Roanokers to attend Arkansas A&M on tennis scholarships.”

As an ambitious man, Poindexter won the City-County Championship the first year it was integrated in 1964 and became the first African-American tennis player to win a tournament with both amateurs and professionals and quickly became a role model for others.

After a stint in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, Poindexter returned to Roanoke to teach biology and coach tennis. He retired 30 years later in 1994. “We are able to celebrate diversity now because of a few brave individuals who challenged the status quo and broke barriers for people of color. One of those people is Carnis Poindexter,” Mayor Lea said.

John Fishwick, a prominent local attorney who Poindexter used to play tennis with initiated the idea of River’s Edge Tennis Courts being renamed after Poindexter. He is proud of the opportunities Poindexter has provided for young individuals and was honored to help in the renaming process.

“Twenty-five young men went to college because of Carnis Poindexter,” Fishwick said. “I knew Carnis when I was younger and I obviously knew about his great tennis ability but I also knew about how much he had done for the community in helping other people go to college. I thought we should honor that.” Poindexter is currently an elder at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church and remains an active member today. His achievements and the impact he has made on local citizens are extremely significant contributions and will continue to be cherished by those not just in the northwest Roanoke community.

“Now, people for years to come can play tennis and learn about Carnis Poindexter and all he’s done for our
city,” said Mayor Lea in closing comments.

Many boast of the Park on Wiley Dr. SW., as being some of the finest tennis accomodations in the area– which now–bear the name Carnis Poindexter Tennis Courts!