Tennis Lessons: WFU Prof’s Life a Study in Sportsmanship, Tenacity and the Law

This article is reprinted with permission from the North Carolina Bar Association.  It was originally published in November 2015. Professor Hopkins, a 1977 graduate of William & Mary Law School, recently retired from the Wake Forest University law faculty after more than 30 years of service. You can read more about the professor in a story published by Wake Forest on the eve of her retirement.

Photo courtesy of Wake Forest UniversityProfessor Muriel Beth Hopkins of Wake Forest University currently serves as chair of the Constitution and Rules Committee of the United States Tennis Association (USTA), a role she never could have envisioned growing up in Petersburg, Va.

“In the town I grew up in there were no public tennis courts available for African-Americans,” said Hopkins. “We would have been arrested had we attempted to play on public tennis courts in the 1960s.”

So much has changed since then, and Hopkins has done more than simply witness it. She’s been a part of it.

“We all followed Arthur Ashe because he was from a nearby city (Richmond) and my mother actually pushed him in a stroller when he was little. She and one of his aunts were very good friends.”

Suffice it to say, Hopkins remembers where she was in 1975 when Ashe defeated Jimmy Connors to become the first African-American man to win the coveted Wimbledon singles title.

“I was in my car driving to Winston-Salem from William & Mary Law School listening on the radio,” Hopkins said. “I almost turned my little orange Volkswagen over!”

By that time Hopkins had been bitten by the tennis bug. It began simply enough with a tennis class at Wake Forest University, where she was one of only two African-American females living on campus.

“I took a tennis course my sophomore year in college and developed a love for the game,” Hopkins said. “I was a league player first, and then graduated to being a parent of a tennis player.

“I started out as a volunteer with the North Carolina Tennis Association on its Constitution and Rules Committee and the Diversity Committee. From there I gained an interest in the Southern Tennis Association and served on several committees within that organization, and later became chair of the Constitution and Rules Committee for the Southern Tennis Association.”

As this was happening, her son, David, was rising through the ranks of junior tennis. He ultimately achieved top 10 status nationally among junior players, played No. 1 for the Wake Forest tennis team, and recently joined the professional circuit after working for the USTA in Atlanta.

“We also have a daughter, Michelle,” Hopkins quickly points out, “who is married with two daughters and lives in Richmond.” Professor Hopkins is married to former Wake Forest football player Larry Hopkins, a member of the 1970 ACC championship team who is now an OB/GYN.

Hopkins had served on the Constitution and Rules Committee some 10 years and four years as vice chair before being appointed to a two-year term as chair by USTA President Katrina Adams.            

“There are about nine lawyers on the committee and a very knowledgeable chairman of the Junior Competition Committee,” Hopkins said of her present duties. “Together we look at proposals from committees and delegates to determine how the proposals may relate to the International Tennis Federation Rules.

“We also try to get the proposal so it is decipherable. I believe in plain English, and that is what we try to do as we review the new provisions or amendments to the constitution, bylaws and regulations of the USTA.

The committee is also charged with reducing ambiguity and promoting clarity.

“We also facilitate communication between the other committees to ensure that whatever is proposed is fully vetted. In other words, we discuss and try to fine tune every proposal that is introduced for the members’ consideration.”

What’s amazing about her work with the USTA is that Hopkins finds time to do it. She is director of outreach, where she oversees the pro bono and public interest programs of the law school, also teaches the business drafting course. Hopkins also teaches in the Department of History.

The upper level course, which she designed, is titled “Race and the Courts,” wherein she encourages students to talk openly about their perspectives on race.

“We look at Supreme Court cases starting with Dred Scott right up through 2014,” Hopkins said. “We examine how court cases have impacted social relationships in the United States.

“In Dred Scott, it was ruled that the black man ‘had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.’ Now we have seen the application of the 14th Amendment to the rights of all citizens, which has helped to ease the tensions.

“We have come a long way, but the journey is not over yet.”

Hopkins graduated with honors from Wake Forest in 1973 but was denied admission to its law school, for reasons she has never fully understood.

“I was told the law school already had two blacks,” Hopkins said. “I am not sure what that had to do with me, but it was enough to keep me out the first time I applied. So I took a year off and did eligibility work for Forsyth County.

“It proved providential, because the next year I applied and was accepted into law school at William & Mary. And because I was able to retain my Virginia residency, I went to law school for $500 a semester.

“Had I not gone to William & Mary, I would not have gone to work for Hill, Tucker and Marsh and worked with Oliver Hill. Nor would I have met his law school classmate, Thurgood Marshall.”

Still, it’s a wonderful testament to her magnanimous spirit that Hopkins made her way back to Wake Forest and its law school.

“I never give up,” she said. “I always live by the rule that when one door closes, another one opens. I never envisioned being able to teach here and direct programs. What I feel is my most treasured accomplishment is being able to provide service to the Lumbee Indians in Pembroke.

“Our students travel three and a half hours each way to assist with issues affecting the Lumbee Indians. The program is successful because of the compassion of the students here.”

In addition to her duties at the university and volunteer roles, which include two NCBA committees, Hopkins is also an author. She recently contributed a chapter to “Trauma and Resilience in American Indian and African-American Southern History,” (Peter Lang Publishers, 2013).

“My chapter, ‘The Hills of Hanover County,’ recalls the story of my grandfather, who kept his family from starving to death during The Depression by walking 20 to 30 miles a day from Hanover County to Richmond to get work. The chapter discusses how the land sustained the family, and how my grandfather and his wife with eight children survived The Depression.”