Donald Redd: Table Tennis Coach

Sporting wide aviator glasses, golden chains, and full, silver beard, there’s an air of coolness to Donald Redd, the 83-year-old table tennis coach at Promise Academy I. Most know Mr. Redd as HCZ’s dynamic, witty athletic specialist who has served the children of Harlem for 17 years. However, most do not know that Donald Redd’s celebrity has spread across decades and even continents.

Born into a musical family in the Bronx, Donald Redd seemed to discover a new talent and hustle in every stage of his life. As a clever young man, he started his first business at 12 years old – a shoeshine box downtown that sent him home with pockets full of quarters. In 1955, before he had even graduated high school, Redd had released music on MGM Records as part of a teen quartet. And even as he was drafted into the Marines, Redd found another talent. He excelled at table tennis, a sport he had practiced at the Y in the Bronx.

“People try to put you in a box, but life is so much more than that,” said Redd. “You have to keep learning and improving yourself.”

Once Redd returned from the war, he began making his mark as an entrepreneur. In 1965, Redd and his partners opened the first coffee shop in Harlem, “The Truth.” Known for its fresh, imported coffee from the black diaspora, the coffee shop became a trendy gathering place for sharply dressed Harlemites. Many could never fathom living in the Civil Rights era, let alone starting a business in Harlem at that time. But, then, many aren’t as cool as Donald Redd.

“You had all these people come in. Some of the Last Poets, even. I told them to take that stuff downtown,” said Redd. “The purpose of life isn’t to hate. It’s to create.”

Mr. Redd had been an inventor, investor, and businessman in America for years before he had set off to Vietnam, Liberia, and Sierra Leone to work in the trade of raw African materials. Through the Apartheid era, Redd worked to export and manufacture natural African resources like shea butter, gold, and nuts. While living in Africa, he sharpened his table tennis skills, earning earn Olympic certification to represent Sierra Leone.

Mr. Redd in Sierra Leone.

After 83 years, it would be impossible to document all the rich, fantastic, and inspiring details of Mr. Redd’s life.

“The possibilities are truly endless for us. We don’t need hundreds of millions of dollars to be incredible,” said Redd. “I tell the kids that all that time. It doesn’t matter what you say, it’s what you do.”

At Promise Academy I, Mr. Redd is an activity specialist and coaches elementary students in table tennis. In class, students can challenge each other, practice with “robots” (ball throwing machines), or go up against Mr. Redd himself. Practicing a sport against an Olympic-certified athlete may seem daunting, but Redd’s students consider it an honor and a sign that they are improving.

Mr. Redd’s instruction goes past table tennis. Students not only learn how to play the sport but also how to collaborate and build skills. Exercise and warm-ups are mandatory and peer-led to teach respect and discipline. And to keep up energy and morale, Mr. Redd brings in bananas and tangerines every day. Off the court, Mr. Redd and his students talk about the power of confidence, innovation, and exploration – in the sport and in life.

“I don’t want the students to ‘take’ anything away from me or anyone,” said Redd. “I want them to find that potential and power in themselves. I want them to see the voids in the world and fill them.”

Redd’s proclivities for innovation are far from retired. Currently, he’s interested in how technologies can build communities, and he wants to be part of it. Knowing Mr. Redd, this means he probably will be.
As a resilient and cherished part of the history of our community, it is without a doubt that Donald Redd will continue to shape and brighten it for years to come.