City’s letter to long-time and respected Natchez tennis professional to ’quit the premises’ draws angry comments on social media

Published 2:09 pm Thursday, May 25, 2023

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NATCHEZ — A letter from the city’s interim attorney to a long-time and beloved Natchez tennis coach and instructor at the Duncan Park tennis courts has some Natchezians up in arms on social media.

Scott Slover, who is acting as city attorney while City Attorney Bryan Callaway is away for health reasons, sent a letter to Henry “Hawk” Harris on May 22 asking him to “quit the premises.”

Harris served as the city’s tennis director for 28 years. He retired in June 2020 from that position, a week after his 70th birthday.

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Harris is well respected in the tennis community and was honored in 2018 by an induction banquet into the Mississippi Tennis Hall of Fame. Harris was also the long-time tennis coach at North Natchez High School when the Rams won four division championships, four state titles and two Big 8 Conference championships.

In 1984, Harris earned his U.S. Professional Tennis Registry and U.S. Professional Tennis Association certifications.

Through the years, Harris is credited with teaching thousands of Natchez youngsters and adults to play tennis and has particularly helped spread a love for the game among underprivileged young people in the community.

Slover’s letter asks Harris to remove all of the items he has been storing at the “old tennis shop” by 5 p.m. today. It also instructs Harris that he must pay all fees as a “normal customer” when not acting in “any public capacity.”

Those fees are $5 a day or $30 a month for adults and $1 per day and $45 for six months for children, as well as “any others as assessed by the management team.”

The letter goes on to instruct Harris that he must “obey all reasonable rules and instructions as put forth by the Tennis Management Authority, who is instructed to make these requirements to you in writing unless written elsewhere.”

On Thursday morning, Harris, through a spokesperson, said he would not comment on the issue.

Frankie Spence was awarded the contract to manage the Duncan Park courts several weeks ago after the contract of Johnny Walberg of Baton Rouge, La., expired.

Spence said the “old tennis shop,” where Harris has apparently stored some equipment, is being cleaned out and will be renovated for use for the disc golf program, as well as the needs of the tennis program.

“I’ve been friends with him (Harris) forever. I’ve played tennis with him. I’m certainly not against him being here. And he is still here,” Spence said. “I have a job to do and guidelines I have to go by, but other than that, he’s very welcome here.”

Apparently, Spence made no attempt to discuss any issues with Harris before Harris received the letter from Slover. Harris was teaching a lesson to a student at the Duncan Park tennis courts when he was hand delivered Slover’s letter.

Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson said communication could have been handled in a better way by the city with Harris.

“I personally think the world of Henry Harris and appreciate all he has done over many years for our community,” Gibson said. “We understand that there have been some concerns with regard to programming at the tennis court under our new agreement with a new contractor (Spence) and to make sure we are all on the same page, I have asked for a meeting on this with the respective parties and we will be having that meeting later today.”

The mayor said Spence has been working at the Duncan Park courts for some time and has been involved with the Natchez tennis community, along with Harris, for many years.

Gibson said social media is not the place for discussions and he would hate for anyone’s integrity to be questioned on social media.

“That’s not the forum where you settle things. That’s why I called the meeting this afternoon to work out any concerns,” he said. “He (Harris) has done so much for our children and youth and he has been a wonderful coach. Whatever has transpired in the last few days is very possibly the result of a failure in communications. I’m looking forward to clearing the air and moving forward.”