Carnis Poindexter Honored at River’s Edge Tennis Courts

Carnis Poindexter was a barrier-breaking African-American tennis player who changed the landscape of Roanoke tennis more than 50 years ago.

On May 30, Poindexter got his due on the same courts he won the first of four City-County Tennis Tournament championships. The year was 1964, the first year the City-County tournament was integrated.

The River’s Edge Sports Complex tennis facility officially became the Carnis Poindexter Tennis Courts during a ceremony attended by Poindexter’s friends, former players, city officials and well wishers. Poindexter was thrilled by the huge turnout.

“It was extremely special,” Poindexter, 79, said during a phone interview with The Star that night. “John Fishwick was the man behind this happening. I want to thank him.”

Fishwick, a prominent Roanoke attorney who was a tennis student of Poindexter, called his mentor the greatest local player of his era. Fishwick had campaigned on Poindexter’s behalf to have the city rename the courts and paid for the impressive sign that was prominently placed beside the courts adjacent to the gazebo.

Poindexter recalled his start in competitive tennis.

“I went out for tennis at Lucy Addison High School in 1957. I had started playing the summer before with the help of Dr. E.D. Downing, a Roanoke dentist. We’d meet at the Springwood Courts across from the Lincoln Terrace housing project at 5:30 in the morning, Monday through Friday, and play. Dr. Downing told me he would help me get a college scholarship.”

“I was really self-taught. Dr. Downing encouraged me and gave me books on tennis. I’d hit balls against the backboard wall there because there was no one else to play against. I learned a lot of my shots and spinning the ball from playing table tennis.”

As Downing had predicted, Poindexter got a scholarship to attend Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College, a predominantly African-American institution in the state that became known as Arkansas-Pine Bluff in 1972. In his third year there he won the American Tennis Association championship for African-American players. The ATA, formed in 1916 by a group of African-American businessmen, college professors and physicians, and the oldest African-American sports organization in the United States, has become the Mecca for African-Americans from all walks of life who yearn to enjoy the camaraderie and competition offered by a sport for players from age 8 to 80.

After returning to Roanoke, Poindexter coached tennis at Lucy Addison, Jefferson Senior and Patrick Henry High Schools. He also taught biology at Patrick Henry.

“When I returned to Roanoke and started coaching high school tennis, those young players would struggle to beat me,” Poindexter recalled with a chuckle. “At times they couldn’t win points off me.”

Longtime Roanoke Valley Invitational Tennis Tournament player Vic Goudie recalled the talent Poindexter displayed in what was a premier Roanoke tennis event in the 1970s.

The new sign at River’s Edge Sports Complex reflecting the Carnis Poindexter Tennis Courts.

“He was really good, one of the toughest players in the area,” Goudie noted. “He won a lot of matches in the RVITT. I played against some of his pupils and they always were tough opponents, as well.”

Former RVITT competitor Wayne Clinebell, now retired from Norfolk Southern, remembered a match he faced with Poindexter.

“I was in my twenties and a pretty decent player,” Clinebell pointed out. “It was one of those early RVITT’s at South Roanoke courts, and somehow I had the luck of the tournament draw of being matched up with Carnis Poindexter in the first round. His shotmaking was unbelievable. He’d lay it right down the line one time and he could pick out a spot on the court on the next shot and put it exactly where he wanted.”

“Because I started playing so late, I always thought of myself more as a coach than a player,” Poindexter noted. “I was able to help 24 of my players get athletic scholarships, and that’s always been very important to me. I’ve always tried to be humble and didn’t publicize any of my achievements. I hope it won’t be long before another area player has a court named after them.”

Roanoke City Mayor Sherman Lea pointed out at the ceremony that the City takes pride in its diversity and Carnis Poindexter was one of those individuals who challenged the status quo and broke barriers for people of color.

“I have so many great memories from tennis, especially helping those young men getting scholarships,” Poindexter added. “I like to think that I followed thorough for those players just like Dr. Downing did for me. I don’t play tennis any more because my knees just won’t take it.”

That may be the case, but one thing is certain. The legacy of Carnis Poindexter is now cemented at the River’s Edge Sports Complex tennis facility.

Bill Turner

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