Althea Gibson: “Let me be one of you”

International Blog – Michael Dickens

Althea Gibson didn’t just change the sport of international tennis. She fought for what she achieved, both in tennis, where she won 11 total Grand Slam titles, and in advancing civil rights in America during a period of racism and segregation. In doing so, Gibson not only became the queen of her sport, she also changed the world.

A social pioneer and ground-breaker, Gibson’s life and achievements are being remembered this month in celebration of Black History Month in the United States.

Born the daughter of a sharecropper in Silver, S.C., in 1927, Gibson migrated north and was raised from age 3 in Harlem, New York. She disliked school but loved playing sports. A champion on the American Tennis Association, a minor-league circuit for black players, Gibson became the first African American tennis player to compete at the U.S. National Championships (the precursor to the U.S. Open) in 1950, at age 23, and a year later cracked the color barrier at Wimbledon.

“I never thought I would have the opportunity to shake the hand of Queen Elizabeth,” the tall and lean Gibson recalled, after she won the Wimbledon singles title in 1957. “Shaking hands with the Queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus going into downtown, Wilmington, North Carolina.”

As a game-changer and trailblazer, Gibson broke racial barriers in what was a predominantly white sport. After all, in the 1940s and 1950s, most tennis tournaments were segregated – closed to African Americans. As the late American tennis writer Bud Collins wrote in his 1989 book, My Life With the Pros, “Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe weren’t permitted to play tennis everywhere they would have liked because they were the wrong color.”

As her success on the tennis court became evident, Gibson was thrusted into the glare of the early Civil Rights movement. She was reticent at first, but overcame many obstacles to achieve credibility and stardom thanks to her strength of character and athletic ability. She gained an ally in the legendary Alice Marble, a four-time winner of the U.S. Nationals, who wrote in the July 1950 issue of American Lawn Tennis, “If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of players, then it’s only fair that they meet this challenge on the courts.”

In remembering Gibson, Collins wrote: “Althea was the Jackie Robinson of tennis, whose organizers were no more anxious to embrace blacks than baseball’s had been. In fact, after her dramatic debut in the National Singles of 1950 at Forest Hills – four years after Robinson had signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers – Gibson still wasn’t welcome everywhere on the tennis circuit. It took a Wimbledon championship and selection for the U.S. Wightman Cup team in 1957 to give her universal acceptance.”

Indeed, in 1957, Gibson became the first African American to win the women’s singles title at Wimbledon. Her world ranking climbed to No. 1. The year before, the 5-foot-11 right-hander made history by becoming the first black person to win the French Championships. She repeated her successes at the U.S. Nationals and Wimbledon, winning both in 1958. Her 11 Grand Slam titles (three in singles, five in doubles, three in mixed doubles) were achieved in just a short, three-year period.

Gibson was quoted by Sports Illustrated as saying “I was too arrogant and anti-social. I was not conscious of the racial difference.”

In “Althea” a PBS “American Masters” film about Gibson, the proud-but-misunderstood champion recalled her playing style “as aggressive, dynamic and mean.” It was her way of surviving on the tennis court. Among her mentors were boxing champion Sugar Ray Robinson, who took an interest in her career and instilled a sense of toughness while encouraging her to do her best every time she walked on the tennis court.

“African Americans could not play at what we know is the U.S. Open today until 1950,” said Hall of Fame Billie Jean King, in a #USTAEmbraceAll campaign video. “I got to see Althea Gibson play when she was No. 1. She was our Jackie Robinson of tennis. 

“She was such an inspiration to me to see what it looks like to be number one. When I talk about if you can see it, you can be it … that’s Althea.”

During an interview for “Althea and Arthur,” a new documentary about Gibson and Ashe airing this month on the CBS Sports Network in the U.S., five-time Wimbledon and two-time U.S. Open champion Venus Williams, who with her sister Serena benefited from the opportunities made possible by Gibson and Ashe, said, “Althea and Arthur make me proud to be me. We needed those role models – those moments of hope – to be able to see others do it well when so many were oppressed.”

Like Ashe, Gibson was passionate about social justice. She wanted the right to be able to play and compete despite the color of her skin. “Let me be one of you,” King recalled her once saying. At a time when there was no professional tennis circuit for women in her era, Gibson said, “Being champion is all well and good, but you can’t eat a crown.”

Then, at the peak of her game, she walked away from the sport of tennis in 1958, unable to support herself. She played in an era long before there were racquet, shoe or apparel endorsements – or rich earnings from winning tournaments.

“I love this sport very much,” Gibson once said, “and I don’t think I would ever give it up or devote too much time away from it because it’s been very much a part of my life.”

In 1964, at age 37, Gibson brought her talents to professional golf and broke another color barrier with the LPGA, where she competed for more than 10 years. Once retired from professional tennis, she played exhibitions on tour with the Harlem Globetrotters, took up jazz singing and also tried her hand at acting, where she had a role in a 1959 John Wayne movie, “The Horse Soldiers,” directed by John Ford.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, while Ashe cemented his legacy as a revered civil rights icon and “citizen of the world,” Gibson’s accomplishments were largely forgotten despite being honored with induction in both the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. She had risen to the top of her class as a player thanks to her unwavering courage. Yet, in later life, Gibson’s was a tragic success story. She never found her way into the public’s heart and became reclusive in her final years.

Sadly, Gibson, who died in 2003 in East Orange, N.J., at age 76, never got to reap the rewards of her successes.

Last year, then-U.S. Tennis Association President Katrina Adams announced that Gibson would be permanently honored with a monument on the grounds of the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York, home of the U.S. Open. It will be unveiled at this year’s tournament.

Adams remembers Gibson as an icon in the sport of tennis, someone who “was truly diverse in her own thinking and her abilities.”

Gibson’s determination to be a tennis champion will always be something to admire. Her name should never be forgotten.