WINSTON-SALEM'S THE CHRONICLE: Class of 2021 Inductee Dr. James Ewers, Jr., "Hometown Hero Reflects On A Life Well Lived"

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June 6, 2021

WINSTON-SALEM'S THE CHRONICLE: Class of 2021 Inductee Dr. James Ewers, Jr., "Hometown Hero Reflects On A Life Well Lived"



Over the years, we have seen plenty of great athletes come from the city of Winston-Salem. Many have played one of the major four sports, but one mostly unsung hero from the city is finally getting his flowers while he is still here.

Dr. James Ewers Jr. was a star tennis player as a youth. His accomplishments from his high school and collegiate careers are truly remarkable. But it’s what he has done off the court that makes him the epitome of the American dream.  

Ewers is a Winston-Salem native and actually began his career in tennis as a teenager. His first experiences with the game came at the Skyland Elementary School tennis courts that were around the corner from where he lived. 

“I started playing with one of my dear friends named William Earl and he and I were really the only guys playing tennis at the Skyland School, because everyone else was playing basketball,” said Dr. Ewers. “I grew up playing basketball, and playing baseball, and swimming, and I did all of that stuff. But I think the draw that brought me to tennis was that it was different and I didn’t see a lot of people playing it.

“I started just going out and hitting the ball and during those days we had wooden rackets and white balls and I’m playing in Converse basketball tennis shoes, just to kind of let you know how much I knew about tennis decorum.”

Ewers and Earl continued to play the game. They would hit the ball all over the place, including over the fence and onto other courts. Over time, Ewers gained an understanding about the nuances of the sport.

“I began to see that it’s a game where there is a lot of thinking and a lot of strategy, because it’s an individual sport,” he said.  

Ewers attended Atkins High School, which is now the home of Winston-Salem Preparatory Academy, and Earl suggested he go out for the team. Ewers was hesitant initially because he was unsure he would be able to compete with any of the players on the tennis team. Instead, he continued to play at the Skyland courts until he finally decided to try out for the team during his junior year.

“Finally, in the eleventh grade I went out for the tennis team and was fortunate enough and blessed enough to make the tennis team and to my surprise, I won the district championship for the region and my twelfth-grade year, I won another district championship,” Ewers said about his high school career.  

“During those days that were segregated, there was Black tennis and white tennis and I finished third in the state of North Carolina my junior year and senior year I finished second in the state of North Carolina.”

The quick success Ewers attained in the sport was not something he expected upon joining the team as a junior. He says he surprised himself, because he did not have any “grand expectations.”

“I went on the team just to have some fun, just to be able to say I was a part of the tennis team and as God would have it, I started winning,” he continued. “It was interesting to be on that journey, but when I was on the journey, I didn’t realize it was a journey. I just thought that I’m having fun with this and I’m winning and my name would be in the paper.”

Ewers continued to progress as a tennis player to the point he started receiving scholarship offers his senior year. Once again, this was another unexpected result for Ewers. He garnered interest from schools like North Carolina Central University and Winston-Salem State University (WSSU).

While playing at a tournament at WSSU, Ewers upset the No.1 seeded player named Walter Bowser. That win attracted the attention from the tennis coach from Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) who was in attendance. Coach Pop Warner was the tennis coach for JCSU at the time and offered Ewers a scholarship.

“I was listening and I was taking all of it in and I was thinking ‘is this real’?” Ewers said about being offered a scholarship by Warner. “It’s so surreal in the moment that you don’t realize what’s happening.”

Ewers and his father began discussing his options as far as where he wanted to attend college. After a few conversations with his father, Ewers chose to attend JCSU to play collegiate tennis on a full scholarship. Ewers never visited JCSU prior to enrolling and the first time he saw the campus was when he attended freshman orientation in August of 1966.

Choosing JCSU seemed to be the right decision for Ewers. Although he was unsure he would be capable of competing against some of the guys on the team, Ewers compiled a long list of achievements for the Golden Bulls. 

While there he made the All-CIAA team all four years, won a school record 34 matches in a row, was the first African American to win the NAIA District 26 singles championship, reached the quarterfinals of the NCAA regional tournament, and had wins over players from schools such as Purdue, Northwestern, Winthrop, Gardner-Webb, Hampton, and Howard, just to name a few.

“When I played tennis there, I enjoyed the experience,” he stated. “I think in my college career I may have lost four matches in my four years of playing college tennis. When you are playing any sport, I don’t know that you think about the wins as much as you think about the losses, because I can think about the losses pretty clearly.”

Upon graduation from JCSU in 1970, Ewers went on to graduate school at Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. Ewers then took a teaching position at Ballou High School teaching history and government, while also coaching the school’s tennis team.

Ewers continued with his educational goals after leaving Catholic University. He received a fellowship to attend the University of Massachusetts and then went to Harvard University for his post-doctoral studies. The best part of it all was Ewers was able to achieve all of these goals and still remained debt free from student loans.

“I can say that God has blessed me and I can say that as strongly as I can,” he said. “I know that I have been blessed and there is no doubt in my mind that He saw something in me that I did not see in myself. He lighted and guided a path and what he wanted me to do was follow it and I had the good sense to follow it.  

“When people say that God is good, I know exactly what they are saying, because I repeated that expression countless times, because God is good.”

Even though he had a full-time job teaching and coaching, Ewers would still play local tennis tournaments on the weekends because he loved the sport so much. His stellar play warranted his inclusion into several hall of fame classes. He is a member of the Atkins High School Hall of Fame, the JCSU Hall of Fame, the Black Tennis Hall of Fame, and the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Hall of Fame. He is also nominated for the CIAA Hall of Fame and the North Carolina Tennis Hall of Fame. The tennis courts at Atkins High School are also named in his honor as well.

Through tennis, Ewers has met the likes of Muhammad Ali, the Williams sisters, Coco Gauff, Arthur Ashe, James Blake, Andy Roddick and many more celebrities and tennis pros. Ewers has also been selected to chair the United Stated Tennis Association Southern Sectional Diversity and Inclusion Committee. He also was selected to be a member of the USTA National Diversity and Inclusion Committee, as well as the chair of the Louisiana Tennis Association Diversity and Inclusion Committee.

“With these honors I just have so many people along the way that have given me the opportunity,” he went on to say. “You don’t get these honors without people being in your life. Even though tennis is an individual sport, you meet so many people along the way that tell you that you can and that you have the ability and you have the potential, and I am not just talking about tennis, I’m talking about life now.

“I have been fortunate and blessed beyond measure to be around a lot of men and women who gave me the inspiration so that I could have the aspiration and that starts with my teammates from Atkins and Johnson C. Smith University and the adults in my life that made a difference.”

Ewers says his mother and father gave him his humble foundation. He wrote a book a few years ago and dedicated the book to his parents. His goal now is to give back to the community that has given him so much. He and his wife Deborah sponsor a scholarship at Atkins High School. 

“It’s just important to me to pay that success forward, because that’s what an enriched life is about,” he said about giving back. “It’s not about trophies or awards that you win, but it’s how you live your life and how you pass on the lessons you’ve learned.

“When you can give a person hope and encouragement every day, then you can rest easy at night, because you have done your best.”

Ewers says he has tried to stay involved in the sport, because he would like to have more African Americans participate in the sport of tennis. He says there are a number of reasons minorities don’t participate in the sport, such as the cost, the marketing done by the USTA, and the lack of minority role models for children to look up to like there are in football and basketball.

“We just have to keep searching for ways to get more young people of color actively involved in it and one of the ways I’m trying to do that is to get onto these boards and get onto these positions that have some influence on the makeup and shape of tennis and get tennis into recreation centers and into the schools, so more of us can be exposed to tennis,” he continued.  

Ewers knows he would have been successful at something without tennis, but he is unsure he would have had this level of success without it. “I felt that my self-confidence as I was growing up and growing stronger was such that I was going to be able to do something, with or without tennis,” said Ewers. “Tennis didn’t make me the person that I am, tennis certainly helped me along the way. Tennis is an individual sport and there are lessons that I’ve learned from competing that I have used in positions that I have held.”

Ewers has been a vice president at several HBCUs, a dean at the University of Miami of Ohio, a director of admissions at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. He says the lessons he learned in tennis like communication, listening and putting people in position to be successful helped him in those positions during his career.

Ewers was not really inspired by tennis pros, but instead was inspired by his mother, his father, his neighborhood, and the men and women God placed in his life. He says people like George Green, William Earl, Dr. Madeline Scales, Clarence “Big House” Gaines, Mrs. Clara Gaines, and Edward Joyner shaped and inspired him more than any professional athlete. “Those are the people that inspired me, and they were my inspiration,” he said.  

When Ewers thinks back on his life, he had no idea that he would be this successful in the sport of tennis and where it would take him. He says back then, he didn’t even know that you could obtain a scholarship to play tennis in college.

“Even when I was in college winning, I never really thought about myself as being successful,” he said about his career. “I never thought about the fact that I was good at tennis. 

“I never asked God to win, I just asked him to let me do my best and whatever my best was, I could live with that.”


1 comment

  1. This was a really inspiring story, and a joy to read! Dr. James Ewers, Jr. certainly has lived a full life, and yet is a humble man. We should all aspire to this.


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