City to consider adding historical marker at Savin Hill tennis court

Paige Pihl Buckley, Special to the Reporter
Dec. 19, 2013

On Dec. 30, the Boston Parks and Recreation Commission will consider a motion to install a new historical marker at the Sean P. Sullivan Tennis Court in Savin Hill. The marker, which would be placed next to the tennis backstop at the park, would note “the contributions made by Betty Johnson, Hazel Wightman, Arthur Ashe and Helen Firsberg Federowski to the youth tennis programs in Savin Hill during the 1940s- 1970s.”

The marker is the brainchild of Savin Hill resident Heidi Moesinger, 28, who spearheaded a signature drive to petition the city for the marker. Moesigner was particular motivated to honor Johnson, a longtime Savin Hill resident and tennis teacher, was she says was one of Dot’s unsung heroes. It was Johnson who taught several Bostonians the game of tennis, and was instrumental in the installation of a wooden backboard at the courts. The original backboard burned down, but was replaced by the Boston Parks and Recreation Department this past spring, allowing local tennis players to practice solo.

“Betty Johnson volunteered circa the 1940s-1970s teaching tennis to large groups of kids,” Moesinger explains. “She got tennis nets and used tennis rackets for the kids from Hazel Wightman, who was the founder of the Wightman Cup and to whom Johnson would bring some kids to have lessons at Longwood.

“Johnson brought Arthur Ashe, an African American who was an American World Number 1 tennis player, to meet and teach the tennis students at Savin Hill,” Moesinger noted in a letter to the Boston Parks and Recreation Department this fall.

Helen Forsberg Federowski, a Savin Hill resident and the first tennis teacher hired by the city of Boston was also a student of Johnson’s.
“She lived here for a very long time on Evandale Terrace and my grandmother lived there as well,” said Moesinger of Johnson. “She’d talk about Betty Johnson every now and then, and I met her as this little old lady. My grandmother would say it’s a shame that the tennis courts aren’t named after Betty Johnson.”

At her grandmother’s suggestion, Moesinger set out to get Johnson the recognition she and her 90-year-old grandmother feel the tennis teacher deserves.

“I thought wouldn’t it be cool if we dedicated the backboard to Betty Johnson,” said Moesinger. “It’s a sign acknowledging her work and dedication to the community without being an official dedication. It will mention several other tennis teachers and stars, and it will keep everyone happy.”

Moesinger’s original idea of installing a plaque commemorating Johnson alone was met with resistance by the community who felt that recognizing the teacher exclusively may not be a good idea, particularly since most of her work was done on a volunteer basis and very little records exist. Since its expansion to include other tennis greats, support for the project has grown significantly.

“I currently have letters of support from City Councillor Frank Baker, Representative Marty Walsh, Dorchester Historical Society president Earl Taylor, Friends of Historic Savin Hill, Inc., and Tenacity,” said Moesinger. Before the Commission could consider approval of her plan and install the plaque, Moesinger needed to collect at least 100 signatures of support from community residents and get official approval from the Columbia Savin Hill Civic Association.