Illustration by Kat Morgan

A portrait of Mrs. James Conick appears on the cover of the October 1918 edition of a Harlem-based magazine called The Crusader. A single caption inside the issue describes her simply as “New York state tennis champion.” There is no companion article, and no reference to her using any other name than her husband’s.

I came upon The Crusader cover in the New York Public Library’s digital collections in March. Mostly to distract myself from the news, I had assigned myself a quarantine project to research stories of athletes who rose to prominence during New York’s outbreak of Spanish flu. When Mrs. James Conick’s image caught my attention, I Googled her and found fewer than ten (ten!) search results.

The thoroughness of her obscurity felt like a taunt. It seemed immediately evident that hers was a story that had been obscured because of her race, her gender, and the time period in which she played.

So, who was she?

* * *

In the image, Mrs. James Conick wears a bright white blouse, and her midsection fades into an equally creamy-bright background. The pre-Instagram tilt-shift combines with a dollop of hazy light around her face to give her an angelic glow—as if she’s emerging directly from heaven’s perpetually fluffy cumulous clouds. To ensure the seraphic point has been driven all the way home, she also wears what appears to be a cross necklace. Yet the flinty intensity of her eyes cuts right through the softening stage effects. With her hair swept away from her face, and the wry set of her jaw, she has the unmistakable confidence of an athlete in her prime. Around the image, The Crusader’s slogans—Onward for Democracy and Upward with the Race—announce the publication’s aims, while also lending its cover’s subject a heroic frame.

Mrs. James Conick, I would learn, was almost undoubtedly the first Black woman tennis player to appear on the cover of any magazine in the United States—real estate that has been noteworthy when occupied by Black women tennis players ever since. It would take nearly four more decades for Althea Gibson to take a spot on the cover of Sports Illustrated in the run up to the 1957 US Open. She would win that tournament as a follow-up to her victory at Wimbledon. That cover is almost a mirror image of The Crusader: Gibson wears a white shirt, and the collar seems buttoned around her neck, giving the illusion of an accessory. She emerges from a blurred background. And though her hair is curly, it appears to be about the same length as Mrs. Conick’s. Gibson smiles more broadly, but with the same kind of relaxed confidence. It feels like a modern update of The Crusader.

Four more decades later, when Venus Williams first appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1997, the title text “Party Crasher” unsubtly pointed to the fact that she (and subsequently, her sister) had not exactly been invited into tennis’s spotlight. Hair adorned with the white beads that were a trademark of her early career, body uncoiling into a backhand, Venus’s grimace expresses the effort and pain required to break into an unwelcoming sport. Even more recently, the internet had a collective meltdown when Serena Williams appeared on a 2015 Sports Illustrated cover seated on a throne of gold and velvet, legs akimbo, eyes directed at the reader. She wears a lacy black bodysuit and shiny black heels. The sheen of the throne and dark brown lines of the wooden floor contrast sharply with the heavenly fog from which her predecessor emerged in 1918: her left elbow literally rests atop a cherub’s doughy face. Her gaze challenges—dares, really—the viewer to question her dominance.

The covers on which Mrs. James Conick and Serena Williams appear feel like bookends in a century-long story about women’s tennis, Black women in tennis, and the representation of Black women athletes in media more generally. To add context and backstory to The Crusader cover makes this clearer, demonstrating that ideas of belonging, party crashing, exclusion, equality, and excellence were just as operative for Mrs. James Conick as they would prove to be for the athletes who followed her. The very difficulty of uncovering biographical information about her reveals the thoroughness with which women—and particularly women of color—have been erased from sporting histories, even when they rise to the peak of their profession. To learn about Mrs. James Conick requires that we stitch together a biography in fragments. Only then does a portrait of a formidable tennis athlete, excluded from dominant narratives about her sport’s early history, emerge.

That story begins with a name: Marion Elise Gardeen Conick.

But most people called her Elsie.

* * *

The Crusader was not a sports journal. The monthly magazine—founded in September 1918, just one month before Elsie’s appearance—advanced a political agenda that was deemed radical by many of its contemporaries, as well as those that followed. Cyril Briggs, its founder and editor, would go on to found the African Blood Brotherhood, which advocated armed resistance to lynching in the South. Briggs was a Pan-Africanist and racial separatist with a pugilistic reputation. An eventual member of the American Communist Party, he knew how to rouse rabbles (not unlike a fellow famous Nevisian American, though no one has yet written a rap musical about him). Among Briggs’s enduring claims to fame would be his falling-out with fellow activist Marcus Garvey, and his rift with American Communist Party leaders. The latter row would lead to the loss of major financial support for The Crusader in 1922.

So what was Elsie doing on the cover of Briggs’s publication?

Given the directness of The Crusader’s early appeals for subscribers, financial exigencies likely played a central role in editorial decisions. “Boost. Subscribe. Advertise. This is your fight! Pitch in and help!” implored an early editorial, conscripting readers into a collective fight against racism in an effort to sell issues. Briggs may have been a Marxist, but he was also selling magazines in a crowded marketplace. Perhaps he wagered that the controversial placement of a woman athlete on the publication’s second cover would help. If so, the wager paid off, at least in terms of visibility. News of The Crusader spread quickly, and the Chicago Defender—one of the nation’s most important “Negro” papers—called it “Harlem’s most recent and ‘up-to-date’ magazine.” It specifically called out The Crusader’s cover in its September 28, 1918 edition, observing, “The photograph of Mrs. James Conick, Jr., […] helps to make the magazine attractive at first sight.” Elsie drew coverage, even if we don’t know much of anything about sales.

Considering the divisiveness of tennis in the period, there is further logic behind the choice. Tournaments hosted by the United States Lawn Tennis Association (which would later drop the “L” and become today’s USTA) remained closed to African Americans until at least 1940, when Donald Budge—one of the best white tennis players of the era—agreed to play an exhibition match against Jimmy McDaniel, a standout Black player, at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club in Harlem. Barely a generation into tennis’s popularity in the United States, the sport already had earned a reputation for discrimination. At the same time, despite exclusion on the basis of race, tennis became an important marker of social distinction within Black communities themselves. This was particularly true on college campuses at places like Tuskegee Normal, where in 1890 Booker T. Washington arranged for the construction of a court that quickly became one of the most important showcases of tennis talent in the Southern US. Throughout the first half-century of tennis in America, Historically Black Colleges and Universities played a pivotal role in convening tournaments, and hosted social events arranged around tennis. College life incubated tennis, and inculcated students with the sense that the sport should play a role in their social lives as adults.

By 1916, a lively, expanding, but still fragmented archipelago of Black clubs and regional championships had started to come of age. To coordinate national competitions and facilitate inter-club collaboration, the American Tennis Association (ATA) was founded and held its first national tournament the following summer in Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park. Unlike the USLTA, the ATA did not discriminate on the basis of race. Though the ATA rightfully calls itself the “oldest African American sports organization in the United States,” it could also justifiably call itself the first national sports organization open to all races. Its tournaments were more open than those of its segregated predecessor. Tally Holmes won the inaugural ATA men’s singles title, and Lucy Diggs Slowe won on the women’s side. After the founding of the official ATA-affiliated New York State Tennis Association in 1917, the 1918 competition was held at the Ideal Tennis Club in Harlem. The club would go on to host the tournament through 1920. For three consecutive summers, the center of Black intellectual and cultural life in the United States was also the center of Black tennis.

Briggs may have been trying to draw on general enthusiasm for the sport in New York, while building upon well-established precedent for creating visibility for Black women tennis players in the Black press. These periodicals showcased growing participation in a sport that signified refinement and upward mobility. Tennis had already found its way into Black newspapers like the New York Age—which regularly covered matches—as well as political periodicals aimed at Black audiences. The same way that The New York Times did not report on ATA matches, newspapers aimed at Black audiences ignored USLTA competitions. Meanwhile, W.E.B. DuBois’s magazine The Crisis, the official organ of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), featured pictures of Black tennis stars, including Slowe, as early as 1917. A paragraph next to Slowe’s photo in the October issue from that year describes her exploits, including her own back-to-back pre-ATA New York State tennis championships. An advertisement in the same issue for the Pinehurst Inn—a getaway in Montclair, NJ that was popular among Harlemites—counts a lawn tennis court among its amenities, promising readers, “You will fit in here.”

Tennis excellence among Black athletes had begun to convey a sense of prosperity and belonging, and not just in a sport whose most visible formal body excluded their participation. Images and stories about Black tennis athletes conveyed that Blacks belonged to—were thriving more broadly in—the echelons of society that could afford to play tennis, that could escape the city for the weekend to posh country clubs and seaside inns, and that could measure success in distinguished and well-coordinated regional and national tournaments. Playing tennis may never constitute a properly revolutionary act. But perhaps by featuring a tennis athlete on his magazine’s cover, Briggs was acknowledging how the sport’s grassroots national body of coordinated local and regional organizations embodied the spirit of collective action.

Still, it would have surprised audiences in 1918 to find a Black woman tennis player on the cover of a magazine—even one designed to appeal to Black audiences. By making “Mrs. James Conick” the chief spokesperson for the issue, The Crusader pushed the envelope in a way that aligned with its mission statement. One could do worse for an embodiment of Black excellence (in a sport dominated by wealthy whites, no less) than a young, successful, attractive, and ambitious Black woman tennis player from New York. While one can certainly levy the critique that the magazine deprives Elsie of her name, it might also be read as a kind of iconic ambition for her. In the social context of the issue’s historical moment, it would have been important to underscore marital status through the use of a husband’s name—and of course, it would remain a general (if sexist) practice to refer to women by their husband’s name well into the twentieth century. In this instance especially, marriage would perhaps have been an important marker of social stability and family, anticipating and neutralizing racist prejudices that hyper-sexualized young Black women. As historian Jennifer Lansbury argues in her excellent book on prominent Black women athletes, A Spectacular Leap: Black Women Athletes in Twentieth-Century America, “The Black middle class sought both a safe environment for Black women to gather and a haven to protect them from unfounded accusations of sexual misconduct.” Sports, and the organizations that facilitated them (like the YWCA), often provided this protection.

The circumstances of Elsie’s presence on the cover may have had less to do with her as a person, and more to do with the ability of a singular Black woman tennis athlete to signify a radical politics—a celebration of achievement on terrain that had been (for a generation already) occupied exclusively by whites, without any reference to whites at all. Almost a hundred years before Twitter freak-outs about the signification of Serena Williams on a golden throne, the first Black woman tennis player on a magazine cover already predicted and embodied the same issues.

* * *

In tracking Elsie’s biography, finding her first name was one of the biggest single challenges. The obstacles to researching a Black woman who lived in the early 20th Century reveal the ways that the historical and narrative record have been marked by inequality, and offer a lesson in how structural inequality works itself into the mitochondria of institutions. Reproductions of “Negro newspapers” are often poorer than sources like the New York Times. Word searches are confounded by inaccurate recording of article text. And standard databases of historical newspapers exclude these papers entirely, necessitating multiple searches and complicating the process of connecting dots. Still, with some luck and left-hand turns, the puzzle started coming together.

At first, attempts to extract Elsie’s life from James’s only produced more entanglements with her husband. The first search result that I found for “Mrs. James Conick” in archives of African American newspapers happened to include the birth announcement for her daughter, born in February 1918—Elsie’s life now refracted through the lenses of marriage and motherhood. But from there, searching “Mrs. Conick” and “daughter” led me to a brief paragraph-long social diary entry from the Capitol Plaindealer—an African-American paper in Topeka— in 1936. It reported, “Mrs. Elise Gardeen Conick [emph. added], noted tennis and golf enthusiast, accompanied her daughter, Miss Phyllis Conick, to Howard University.” 

Three things stood out in this combination of finds. First, Elsie gave birth to Phyllis just six months before she became that N.Y. State Champion, itself a remarkable feat that again connected her to Serena Williams, whose post-pregnancy season became the source of so much sturm und drang about motherhood’s effects on her livelihood. Second, the article was eighteen years after that tournament, and Elsie was still being called out for her tennis exploits—in Kansas. It seemed like immediate evidence that she had been a figure of national prominence for a long time. Third, and most importantly, I had found her full maiden name.

I knew I was onto something. The Crusader cover was not the culmination of a biography or a playing career. It was just the beginning of an influential life.

A query of 1910 census records for the last name Gardeen produced only a few results in New York. I went through each and could not find an Elise. But I did find a daughter named M.E. Gardeen. She was born Marion Elise Gardeen in 1895, the daughter of William Gardeen and May Thompson. May was a lifelong New Yorker who lived until 1943, while William had arrived in New York from Georgia years before the first wave of the Great Migration would turn similar relocations into data points in a national narrative of escape and promise. Elsie had two sisters, and her family also lived together with May’s much younger sister.

This information unlocked a trove of articles beginning with coverage in 1916, which helped track the development of a young tennis star on the courts of Black tennis clubs around New York City. As children, the Gardeen girls appeared in pageants, parades, and swim meets. A 21-year-old M.E. Gardeen played for the Colonial Club, located at 5th Avenue and 138th Street, a block away from the Harlem River. The club had “excellent courts” according to The New York Age, which reported on her defeat of Flushing’s E.K. Jones. The following week, she lost to the Arrow Club’s Mrs. Reed. On July 27, the Age again covered the Colonials, this time against the J.B. Taylor Tennis Club of Brooklyn. Rain delayed the action, but M.E. is referred to as “the popular player of the Colonials.” She won her first set 6-1 before darkness abbreviated the match. Referred to for the first time as “Miss Elise Gardeen” in August, she joined with Miss Blossom Lewis of the Gotham Tennis Club to deliver Flushing—“hitherto invincible”—their first team defeat in the club’s history. “Miss Gardeen has been playing sterling tennis this season,” The Age reported on August 10. Nevertheless, she went down in surprise defeat against Dora Cole Norman in straight sets.

The Age’s coverage of Elsie’s play in 1916 doesn’t just reveal that she had a successful season, and that she had already risen to local prominence, with high expectations. It suggests that she would have been visible enough by 1918 for her to have appeared on the radar of a person like Cyril Briggs. It also chronicles the vibrancy of the Black interclub tennis scene in New York City. Elsie did not play in the 1917 season, perhaps due to her pregnancy. In the background, The Age reported on November 30, 1917 that the American Tennis Association was founded: “At that meeting eleven tennis associations scattered over the Atlantic seaboard were represented by delegates.” Details were also finalized of the first National Championship, to be held that August in Baltimore.

Early histories of the ATA focus on nationally prominent players like Lucy Diggs Slowe. But in observing how closely The Age followed Elsie and other “weekend warrior” players in places like New York, we get a sense for how important tennis was to Black social life. Match recaps appear weekly and paint a picture of a garrulous group of tennis players and fans who gathered around New York City for events, tournaments, and weekly clashes between rivals.

Here’s a weird wrinkle in the story.

Elsie remains out of the eye of the press for a few years after 1917. There isn’t even a description of her matches in the New York State championship in 1918. When she does show up in 1922, it’s because she competed in the Metropolitan AAU’s first nationwide amateur track meet for girls. She came in fifth in the 5,000-meter walk. Incredibly, when we find her back in the press, it’s because she is participating in another first-of-its-kind event in the United States—outside of her primary sport.

Elsie, fifth from left, at the Metropolitan AAU’s first national amateur track meet for girls in 1922 (Image from Chicago Defender, Sept. 23, 1922).

When The Pittsburgh Courier—one of the most important Black newspapers in the country—again reported on her tennis, it was for her exploits in the 1924 New York State Tournament. Elsie lost in straight sets in the semifinals, but the Courier reported that she had, “fought through many crusades, and has a credible reputation back of her.” In 1925, she hit her stride again, winning the interclub tournament of the Ideal Tennis Club. On that occasion, The New York Amsterdam News called her “one of the very few New York hopes among the lady players in the national championships at Bordentown, NJ this year.” In 1926, the Courier reported that Conick was only defeated by the National Champion Miss Lulu Ballard, “thus upholding New York’s reputation.” In the description of that match, the Courier goes on to report that Elsie had “put up a hard fight.” The first set, “replete with thrills,” went to the score 11-9, “and in the opinion of several of the officials of the ATA [it] was the finest set of the Women’s Singles in the history of the ATA.” By this time, Elsie was 31 years old, still carrying her home state on her back, and playing what counted as some of the best tennis in the history of the American Tennis Association.

Perhaps the best indicator that Elsie had become an important player in the early years of statewide and national ATA play is a profile of her in The Pittsburgh Courier in 1932. The article, which describes her as “Court Queen,” lists her achievements: “She has won 28 loving cups at meets in four states, and three medals as runner-up in New York City matches.” The article describes her as a member of the Shady Rest Club, the oldest Black country club in the United States. It also observes that she is “one of the very few native Harlemites now living in Harlem,” and that “When she graduated from high school she was only two colored girls of 480 graduates.” At the time the article was written, Elsie and James were living in the Dunbar Apartments, made famous by residents like DuBois and poet Countee Cullen, among others. In descriptions of the Dunbar, Elsie and James are listed among that list of famous apartment occupants.

There is a sense that she has moved into the role of elder stateswoman at this point in her career. In the 1932 season, with Ora Washington now dominating ladies’ singles, the New Journal and Guide reported Elsie as dropping in the rankings to seventeenth in the country. That same year, she lost in the doubles final to Washington in the Southeastern Open Tournament. Washington would become the first truly prominent Black woman tennis player in the country. In Jennifer Lansbury’s terms, which today echo the Pittsburgh Courier’s assessment of Elsie in 1932, it was Washington who, “became the undisputed ‘queen’ of African American tennis, winning the [ATA] women’s singles an unprecedented eight times.” Washington was the first Black woman tennis athlete to real national prominence, according to Lansbury. She writes, “As the Black community confronted entrenched segregation during the opening decades of the twentieth century, it provided an active sporting scene that helped make Washington’s career possible.” The biography of Elsie’s career demonstrates that she played an essential part in shaping that scene, and laying down the foundation for Washington and others that would follow.

By 1932, Elsie’s stature in the Black community—particularly among athletes—was already deeply established, and she began to transition into more of an administrative leader in the ATA, continuing to shape and foster its growth. She was prominent enough to be asked by the Courier to report ringside on the Joe Louis vs. Primo Carnera fight (“Joe had won by a technical K.O. It was a real thriller!”). And The New York Amsterdam News reported that she had become treasurer of the New York State Tennis Association. By the fall of 1936, when she made that drive with Phyllis to Howard University, Elsie clearly played an important role in New York and national tennis. In the meantime, other of the earliest prominent women tennis athletes had established themselves in positions of influence, including at Howard itself. When Phyllis enrolled, Lucy Slowe Diggs was serving in the final years of her tenure as College’s first Dean of Women. Elsie became Eastern Field Secretary of the ATA, she helped hold Harlem’s first Junior Tennis Day in 1940. And by 1944, she was selected as Chairman of the Committee for the ATA National Tournament—the first time the event was held in New York since 1920.

Elsie in her 1932 Pittsburgh Courier profile.

At two moments on either side of the 1940’s, coverage of Elsie reveals the role that she played in the ongoing struggle to desegregate tennis. As field secretary of the ATA in 1940, she commented on a dispute in which the New Jersey Tennis Association had amended its constitution and by-laws to exclude white players from participating in tournaments. Elsie pointed out that this was “in direct violation of the American Tennis Association’s constitution,” which seems to reveal her particular approach to the politics of desegregation: maintaining the ATA’s higher ground and refusing to discriminate in the manner of the USTA. “This has created an embarrassing situation,” she said, “and is a handicap in our efforts to stimulate tennis and encourage cooperation with other groups.” Elsie defended the ATA’s roots as an organization committed to not repeating the separationist sins of its more prominent whites-only counterpart. But by the end of the decade, segregation was still mostly in place. In a 1949 article in The New York Amsterdam News, photos of Elsie and Althea Gibson appeared on the same page for what appears to be the only time. “Tennis still keeps up racial barriers, which have been breached only slightly,” declared the headline. The article describes some of Elsie’s exploits in the 1930s below a much larger picture Gibson, the new champion—and the player who would ultimately break through on the international scene.

The remaining references to Elsie in the press refer to her role in society. She and James moved out to Long Island at some point between 1936 and 1945. The Age, which reported on her first exploits in 1916 and announced Phyllis’s birth, also announced the birth of Phyllis’s first child in 1949. Later that year, Elsie was interviewed on WLIB on a show called “Breakfast with Betty” in a feature on “famous firsts.” That same column then announces the death—in 1952—of Jim Conick, “beloved husband of tennis player, Elise Conick.” It seems fitting that the last press mention of Elsie in the press describes James Conick as her spouse, and not the other way around.

* * *

Marion Elise Gardeen Conick died on October 8, 1958, a little more than a year after Althea Gibson’s Sports Illustrated and Time Magazine covers. I found her full name listed in a digitized ledger of Manhattan deaths, though I couldn’t locate an obituary.

When I started writing, the hook I imagined for Elsie’s story was that she appeared on the cover of The Crusader just a few weeks before the Nieuw Amsterdam and Rochambeau crept into New York Harbor with Spanish flu aboard. But when George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were murdered and protests started spilling down my block, that positioning felt suddenly silly—an unnecessary effort to shoehorn her story into a frame of so-called “timeliness.”

No matter how the news has shifted over these months, the real stakes of this story have always been clear: to describe a life that mattered.

A-J Aronstein

A-J Aronstein works at Barnard College in New York City. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Paris Review, Electric LIterature, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn.

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2 Comments on “Elsie Conick: A Biography in Fragments

  1. An incredible story and the best part were the words you used to conclude it. “A life that mattered.” Much appreciated.

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