Serena Williams, perhaps the best woman to ever play the game of tennis has just won her seventh Wimbledon title. If you read or listen to the commentaries on Serena’s victory, they have focused on this being her twenty-second major tournament win. This ties her with Steffi Graf who also had twenty-two major championships. Margaret Court had twenty-four major victories, but that was at a time when women’s tennis was much less competitive.
While winning the singles championships at all the major tournaments is an outstanding accomplishment, we might consider that Serena and her sister Venus also won the Wimbledon doubles championship this year. In fact, Serena and Venus won fourteen major doubles championships to Steffi Graf’s one doubles championship.
While these have been extraordinary accomplishments, for me, this is not the most interesting story concerning Serena Williams’ career. In order to appreciate this story, we need to look at an important part of the history of this country.
Raised as a Black child during Jim Crow segregation
Initially, most of the income of the United States came from slave labor. After the so-called outlawing of slavery, Black people worked at the worst jobs that were essential to industrial development. So, when we think of the enormous wealth that exists in this country, that wealth has its roots in the labor of Black women and men.
The grandmother of Serena and Venus Williams was Julia Metcalf Williams. Julia Williams barely made a living picking cotton and cleaning laundry in Shreveport, Louisiana. In order to give birth to her son Richard she needed to ride a wagon pulled by a mule in a rainstorm. She could only be treated at the one hospital in Shreveport that cared for people who had a dark skin color.
Growing up was not easy for Richard. He learned to run fast so he could escape racist mobs. Three of his friends were murdered or lynched because of the racist atmosphere of those days. All of this was documented in Richard Williams’ autobiography: Black and White – The way I see it, that he co-wrote with Bart Davis. This is a link to my review of that book.
Richard Williams was well aware of the discrimination he faced in Shreveport. This is how he explained it. In his later life Williams was asked how it felt to be a millionaire. Williams answered that he was a millionaire when he was sixteen. He said, “Hell, I made more than a million. I know this because I worked for white people who kept buying big plantation homes, big fields, big cars. Matter of fact, they bought the whole damn city. Sure, I made millions. They just kept my share.”
After leaving Shreveport, Williams faced discrimination and police abuse. He eventually started his own business. However, he had a hunger to achieve what had been denied him because of the racial discrimination in this country.
The idea of raising champions
One day, Richard Williams was watching television and he accidentally viewed a woman winning a tennis tournament and receiving an award of $40,000. Immediately he started thinking about the possibilities of professional tennis for young women. Before Venus and Serena were born, at a time when Richard knew little about tennis, he wrote a 78 page proposal arguing that he would raise two daughters to become tennis champions.
Thinking about this idea, I believe Williams thought about the example of his mother. She needed to have tremendous physical strength as well as tenacity in order to do the work employers expected of her. He thought about how his mother managed to raise him in the atmosphere of Jim Crow segregation, where he needed to think creatively to survive. With this in mind he decided to raise his daughters in an atmosphere where they would have the confidence to do anything.
Richard Williams needed to battle street gangs in Compton, California for two years just so his daughters could play tennis on the local courts. Williams likened these battles to the battles he waged with the segregationists in Shreveport. However, in Compton he established a live and let live attitude with gang members. He never was able to establish this kind of attitude with the segregationists.
So, when we look at the accomplishments of the Williams sisters and their background, we are looking at the history of this country. This is the story of how people managed to persevere in spite of unimaginable hardships. This is the story of how, when given a chance, humanity is capable of achieving real excellence in spite of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Clearly everyone isn’t going to be a professional tennis champion. However, in today’s world employers require working people to generate profits for the super wealthy. When working people relieve ourselves of this burden, there will be no limit to our potential. This is the story the news media isn’t interested in today.