- Alison Green
- Ella Jenkins
For our People issue, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ella Jenkins, the legendary children’s folk musician who turned 90 in August. When I looked through old news stories to prepare for the interview, I came across an Ella Jenkins with a different kind of talent:
“Ella Jenkins Is Chicagoland’s Table Net Champ” read the headline in the March 20, 1948 Chicago Defender.
The Defender reported that Miss Ella Jenkins, of the Washington Park table tennis club, had won the women’s title in the Chicagoland table tennis championship at Navy Pier.
Back then the Defender, the city’s black-owned daily, highlighted victories of blacks over whites. So the paper noted: “In the finals Miss Jenkins defeated Miss Lucille Gorka, white, of Whittier playground, 21-10, 21-10.”
I knew that Ella Jenkins the musician had lived on the south side then, and had been born in 1924. Washington Park is on the south side, and 23 seemed a likely age for a table tennis champ. But Jenkins is a common name. Was this the same Ella Jenkins, I wondered?
The musician was delighted to be asked. “I was over at Washington Park, and they had about four [table tennis] tables,” Jenkins told me. “And they would say, ‘Girls don’t know how to play.’ I said, ‘Well, I would like to learn.’ There were two fellows down there who I knew who used to work with me. I started playing in tournaments, and pretty soon I started winning them.” She laughed heartily and added, “I’ve got a few trophies and medals at home to prove it.”
Jenkins’s manager, Bernadelle Richter, later told me that one summer about ten years ago, Jenkins played in a Chicago table tennis tournament for seniors. And won it, at age 80.