Bessie Stockard, an associate professor in health education at the University of the District of Columbia, has lived at Connecticut House since the late 1970s. Bessie grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, “the last to be born” of seven children to Andy R. Stockard, a custodian, and Bessie Mae, a teacher.
Bessie’s athletic career began with high school basketball. She perfected her skills by playing with the boys and earned a full four-year basketball scholarship to Tuskegee University.
During her high school years, Bessie worked as a playground leader in a city park, where she discovered paddle tennis, a version of tennis using a lower net, smaller court and solid paddles. Bessie became such a good paddle tennis player that her reputation grew and challengers came from all over Nashville to try to beat her.
At this time the Nashville City Parks tennis championship was dominated by Wilitta Bartley, a middle-aged woman who was a professor in physical education at Tennessee State University. Confident in her speed and determination to win, teenage Bessie told her father, “I bet I can beat that lady,” and she predicted that one day she would be the City Parks tennis champion.
However, there was a big hurdle. While the tennis paddles were park playground equipment and free, tennis rackets cost money and Bessie could not afford one. But one day her father surprised her. On his modest salary he had bought her a tennis racket on layaway.
Bessie fell in love with tennis. She began to train, and would ride the bus across town whenever she had the money to practice on the public courts. Her “trainers” were three male athletes on tennis scholarships at nearby Tennessee State University. These men became her regular hitting partners and lifelong friends.
Her “coaches” were her brother Russell, today an award-winning sports journalist, and Spike, a fireman and regular hitting partner. Decades later, Bessie still remembers Spike’s advice: “Stockard, you can move and you are quick. Once you get to the ball, stop, take your time and hit the ball over the net into the court.”
Did Bessie ever achieve her dream of becoming the City Parks tennis champion?
Just a few years later- during the summer after her freshman year of college, Bessie earned the opportunity to play Ms. Bartley for the championship title. The match went three sets with Bessie beating Ms. Bartley and claiming the City Parks tennis championship. Bessie’s father was so excited he headed down to the court to congratulate his daughter- completely forgetting his wife back in the stands.
Winning the City Parks tennis championship was a turning point for Bessie. That same summer she applied to play in the American Tennis Association (ATA), an African American sports organization and played for more than ten years. In 1972, she won the ATA’s national women’s singles championship and was invited to join the Virginia Slims women’s tennis tour, where she played for more than three years. She was the only African American woman on the tour at that time.
Bessie’s competitive fire still burns bright. She has qualified three times for the Senior Olympics in tennis and, in June 1993, was a semi-finalist at Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Bessie plans to try to qualify for the Senior Olympics one more time.
Bessie not only had athletic achievements in both basketball and tennis, she had an equally impressive career as a coach. On May 6, 2012, at Nationals Park, she was inducted for her coaching career into the DC Sports Hall of Fame (Washington Informer, May 10th issue, page 35), along with Darryl Green, former Washington Redskins cornerback and Pro Football Hall of Famer, and Adrian Dantley, former NBA All-Star and Basketball Hall of Famer.