On a scorching August morning nearly a decade ago, Louisiana-native Princeton Carter ’20 first discovered he had a target on his back. It was the start of ‘Peewee’ football season, a near-religious event for youngsters raised south of the Mason-Dixon line, and Princeton was keen to lock up the local club team’s starting quarterback position for the second consecutive year. While his parents waited in line and signed the required paperwork, Princeton was approached by another boy who, without preamble, calmly told the incumbent QB that he intended to take that starting job by the season’s end.
“I’ll never forget it,” Carter recalled during an interview with The Argus. “This little white kid comes up to me out of nowhere and says, ‘I’m going to take your job.’ I got so mad thinking that someone was going to take something that belonged to me that I started crying. I was ready to fight the kid.”
Later that day, a tearful Princeton told his father what the boy had said. Mr. Carter’s ensuing remark, corroborated by his mother, grandmother and grandfather, has since become a mantra for Princeton:
“As a black man, you’re going to have to work three times as hard in life as everyone else to get what you want.”
Mr. Carter was no stranger to hard work and perseverance himself. A former cornerback at LSU, he watched his son’s considerable prowess on the football field with a mixture of pride and apprehension. Already several of his old teammates were showing symptoms of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), and Mr. Carter feared that his son’s fierce competitive nature would drive him to risk his body unduly in an already violent sport. With these anxieties in mind, the Carters resolved to find a sport that would keep their son’s competitiveness in check, while simultaneously teaching him resilience, humility and mental toughness. They settled on tennis.
By the time Princeton began his freshman year at Isidore Newman School, a private institution in Uptown New Orleans, he was ranked among the nation’s top 100 junior players. Tennis was now his sole athletic focus, but Louisiana’s marked indifference towards the sport compelled Princeton’s family to travel as far as Atlanta and Tennessee in order for Princeton to play competitive tournaments. In addition to the grueling travel schedule, he was forced to contend with frequent displays of racism from opponents, parents, and tournament personnel, all of whom seemed to view a Black boy excelling at a white man’s game as cause for outrage. Often the racist remarks were directed at Princeton’s extended family.
“I remember going to tournaments in Mobile [Ala.] and Jackson [Miss.], and the officials would come onto the court and blatantly call lines against you,” said Carter. “They also tried to find reasons to give you code violations, or to kick your parents off the court.”
He specifically recalls an instance where an opponent’s father gave his mother the finger in plain view of the official, who promptly turned the other way and said nothing. The blatant racism that Princeton encountered on the tennis court mirrored the discrimination he faced in his high school classes.
“I went to a private high school with an overwhelmingly white, largely conservative student body and faculty,” Carter explained. “I would constantly have to fight for teachers to grade my assignments fairly, and I was given detention for made-up infractions like not wearing a belt to school. Meanwhile white kids were walking around in sweat pants.”
In perhaps the greatest injustice of all, the Isidore Newman faculty prohibited Princeton from having his ‘signing day’ (a term referring to high school athletes publicly committing to their university of choice in a ceremonial setting) on school premises, despite the fact that he had represented Isidore Newman at the LHSAA (Louisiana High School Athletic Association) Tennis State Tournament and won the state title three consecutive times.
“Looking back, I think a lot of these experiences ended up helping a little bit because they gave me a thick skin,” Carter concluded.
Princeton was drawn to Wesleyan for many of the same reasons as other talented scholar-athletes from around the county: its history of academic excellence, coupled with its blossoming athletic program. For Princeton, a Wesleyan education meant more than just a fancy degree and a shot at an NCAA title, however. After nearly two decades in Louisiana, Carter would be spending the next four years in a region of the country that was totally foreign to him.
“When I was choosing where to go to college, I was like ‘I’ve got to get out of here,’” Carter said in reference to his home state. “This very negative place will have an effect on you…I know a lot of guys who stayed and you can just see it in their face, they can’t stand being there. The constant negativity and racism weighs on you. And that’s why I came to Wesleyan.”
Upon arriving in Middletown, Princeton recalls being most impressed by the manner in which difference is acknowledged and celebrated on Wesleyan’s campus.
“When I got here, I didn’t just see other African-Americans, but Afro-Latinos and other kids with really unique racial and ethnic backgrounds,” he said. “When you bring all these individuals with different racial and cultural backgrounds together, you begin to value and admire not just what you all have in common, but what makes you different or unique.”
Still, Princeton acknowledges that he remains an anomaly whenever he steps onto a tennis court, regardless of where he plays. 46 years after Arthur Ashe became the first African-American man to win Wimbledon, tennis continues to be a sport largely devoid of Black and Brown faces. Rather than discouraging him, Carter maintains that the notable absence of players of color merely strengthens his resolve to leave his mark on the sport and pave the way for younger generations of Black athletes to follow his example.
“As a Black male playing a majority white sport, you don’t continue to play just because you love it,” he said. “You play because you’re setting an example for those individuals who want to play but are too afraid to. If I keep playing and refuse to quit, there might be 15 to 20 other Black kids who will watch me and say, ‘that kid over there who looks like me, he’s playing tennis, he’s going through it. Maybe I can do it too.’”
Where once a single remark from a hostile party reduced him to tears, Princeton used tennis (a historically white and racist sport) to develop the resilience and grit required to confront a world that condemned him based on his appearance. As the men’s tennis team begins its spring season, he will strive continue to inspire a generation of Black and Brown athletes who aim to alter tennis’ whitewashed landscape.