During the mid-20th century, suburban subdivisions were built around the Park, including Riverside Terrace. Riverside Terrace, developed by Clarence Malone and the Guardian Trust Company in the 1920s,34 was an affluent neighborhood of large homes occupied by some of Houston’s most prominent business professionals. Due to a “gentlemen’s agreement” by realtors and developers to keep Houston’s Jewish population out of the tony suburb of River Oaks, Riverside Terrace became an alternative for families like the Sakowitzes, Weingartens, and Fingers — so much so that it was known as “the Jewish River Oaks,” even though the neighborhood was always predominantly Christian. Riverside Terrace’s luxurious homes were designed by many of Houston’s top architects.
In the 1950s and 1960s, affluent black families were moving out of historically black inner city neighborhoods toward the suburbs. Block-busting campaigns by real estate speculators, designed to frighten white residents into selling their homes at low prices, so that they could be re-sold to black homebuyers for large profits, were waged in neighborhoods like Riverside Terrace, prompting homeowners there to post signs reading, “This is our home, it is not for sale.” The neighborhood was rocked by the April 1953 bombing of the home of Jack Caesar, a wealthy black cattleman who in 1952 purchased a home on Wichita Avenue. Although Caesar and his wife and children were unhurt, and the bomber was caught and convicted, the presence of armed black cowboys guarding the house for several weeks after the incident, and the fear of additional violence caused many residents to give in to pressure from the block-busters and sell. Although both white and black residents of Riverside Terrace favored an integrated neighborhood, by 1960 the section of Riverside Terrace north of Brays Bayou was 95% black.35 According to historian Stephen Fox, “In the early 1950s, houses in the older sections of Riverside Terrace, north of the bayou, began to be sold to black families. This coincided with the expiration of deed restrictions in these sections, which allowed strip shopping centers, garden apartments, churches, and motels to be constructed on the sites of many of the larger houses. The southern sections succumbed to real-estate pressure during the 1960s.”
In the early 1970s, black children who lived near MacGregor Park had the opportunity to play tennis under the tutelage of a true visionary, John Wilkerson. Wilkerson, who had taught himself to play tennis, won the 1971 American Tennis Association (ATA) national championship. (The ATA was established in 1916 to provide African Americans with the opportunity to compete in the sport.) After graduating from Texas Southern University, he became the head teaching pro at MacGregor Park. At the time, most of his clients were white; not many African Americans played tennis. Wilkerson thought he could change that by starting a free children’s tennis program.
One of Wilkerson’s early students was a young girl named Zina Garrison, who showed a natural ability and athleticism. When she was 11, Wilkerson invited Garrison to join his junior’s program, a group of 30 players who practiced for three hours each evening during the week and from 8 a.m. until dusk on the weekends. Also in the program was Lori McNeil, the daughter of the late Charlie McNeil, a former NFL player. Both McNeil and Garrison would go on to become professional tennis players.
Lori McNeil played tennis for Oklahoma State University, before going pro in 1984. At one point, she was ranked No. 9 in the world. McNeil won 32 doubles titles, and in 1994 upset defending champion Steffi Graf during a first-round match at Wimbledon. Since retiring in 2002, McNeil has served as a U. S. Tennis Association coach and was appointed assistant coach to the U.S. Olympic team in 2004.
Zina Garrison’s career began with strong performances as a junior player, winning her first national title at the age of 14. In 1981, she won the junior titles at Wimbledon and the U. S. Open and was ranked No. 1 in the world. Garrison played professionally for 15 years, winning at least one singles or doubles title each year, and was ranked No. 4 in the world. She also captured a gold medal in women’s doubles and a bronze medal in women’s singles at the 1988 Olympics.40 In 1993, she established the Zina Garrison Tennis Academy in Houston. John Wilkerson serves as the Director of Tennis, and Lori McNeil is a member of the Board of Directors. Some of the Academy’s events have taken place at MacGregor Park.
Over the years, the MacGregor Park Junior Tennis Program changed the lives of many other young people by teaching them a lifelong sport and life lessons for success. A group of program alumni, now successful adults, have formed a non-profit organization to support today’s junior players, continuing to give back to their community, just as Henry and Elizabeth MacGregor did through their gift of the Park so many years ago.