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Gibson, Althea

Althea Gibson

1927-

American tennis player

Althea Gibson once characterized herself as a "Harlem street rebel," referring to her adolescence in New York City, when she was often without direction andmore oftenin various trouble. Yet the world's first African-American tennis champion remained a gadfly all her life. In the late 1950s her scrappiness and athleticism enabled her to not only shatter the segregated, insular world of tennis but also to become the sport's dominant female player. Black tennis players such as Arthur Ashe , Zina Garrison and sisters Venus Williams and Serena Williams have frequently acknowledged their debt to Gibson. (Garrison in 1990 became the first black woman since Gibson to reach the final of a Grand Slam event.) After leaving the amateur tennis circuit in 1958, Gibson met the challenge of integrating women's professional golf. She has since retired from sports, having suffered a number of strokes and additional health problems, yet athletes and activists alike continue to honor Gibson's legacy. In 1971, Gibson was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, and in 2002 was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.

Lost in Harlem

Gibson's parents, Daniel and Anna Washington Gibson, worked as sharecroppers on a cotton farm in South Carolina. Sharecropping, in which farmers work someone else's land and receive a small part of their crop as pay, dates from the Civil War. Even in the best of circumstances, sharecropping rarely offered a decent living.

When the cotton crop failed three years in a row due to poor weather, Gibson's family moved north to New York City.

After staying with Gibson's aunt, Sally, the family settled in an apartment on West 143rd Street in Harlem. Gibson's father found work as a handyman and car mechanic, but with the birth of three more girls (Millie, Annie and Lillian) and a boy (Daniel), the family's lot was little improved, especially as the Great Depression loomed. Gibson, however, remained irrepressible. She preferred shooting pool with the local sharks to doing schoolwork. She also bowled, boxed and played basketball and stickball with the neighborhood boys. Another favorite pastime was sneaking off to the movies. "I just wanted to play, play, play," she told a Time magazine reporter. More than once she ran away from home.

By 1941 she pretty much began ignoring high school completely, as the school board wouldn't transfer her to the school her friends attended. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children's staff, while providing gentle guidance, emphasized that if her delinquency were to continue, they would have to put Gibson in a reform school. She struck a bargain: She would attend school at night if the agency would help her get working papers, despite her age.

But Gibson had energy to burn. She never made good on going to night school, and was fired repeatedly from menial jobs for skipping work to do things like go to concerts at the Apollo Theater. By age 14, New York City's welfare department helped Gibson find more suitable living arrangements and a better job. And then she discovered tennis.

Until her formal involvement in sports, Gibson always struggled to "be somebody." The Police Athletic League sponsored various recreational programs, including paddle tennis, at which she excelled. Musician Buddy Walker, who at the time coached for the PAL's recreation department, noticed Gibson playing paddleball (a popular urban sport played with a wooden paddle and ball against a wall). Suggesting she might enjoy tennis, he gave her a used racquet and taught her the basics. Convinced of her raw talent, Walker introduced her to the upscale Harlem Cosmopolitan Club, where she played a few sets with the pro there, Fred Johnson. The club members, impressed, bought Gibson a junior membership and lessons with Johnson. One member, Rhoda Smith, who had lost her own daughter a decade earlier, took Gibson under her wing, buying her tennis clothes and teaching the chronic rule breaker some new rules, those of social etiquette.

"Why Not Now?"

Tennis had changed Gibson, giving her an outlet for her energy. When she was just starting out, Gibson didn't know how to channel her feistiness. Nana Davis, who beat Gibson in the all-black American Tennis Association (ATA) national girls final, recalled in an interview with Time magazine that Gibson was "a very crude creature," seemingly more interested in a fight than a win. But every loss made her work even more intently on her game.

In 1946, while playing a women's singles competition at Wilberforce College in Ohio, Gibson caught the eye of two surgeons active in the ATA. Hubert Eaton of Wilmington, North Carolina, and Robert W. Johnson of Lynchburg, Virginia offered to provide her with room, board, and an education at no charge. She would spend the school months in Wilmington, and the summer with Johnson for more intensive tennis lessons. But Gibson balked. She never liked school and saw little appeal in returning to high school at age 19. If not for a man she had met during her job at the New School, she might have bypassed this opportunity. Sugar Ray Robinson , a rising boxing star en route to world championship status, and his wife Edna, who had befriended young Gibson during her Harlem days, urged the young champion to jump at the chance to better herself. And jump she did.

In 1947 Gibson won the first of ten consecutive ATA national championships. Two years later she graduated among the top ten in her class at Williston Industrial High School in Wilmington and accepted a scholarship from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College in Tallahassee. Between 1944 and 1950, Gibson took the New York state championship six times. There was no question of Gibson's ATA dominance. There was nowhere else for Gibson to go but crash through the formidable wall of racism.

Chronology

1927 Born August 25 in Silver, South Carolina
1930 Moves to New York City
1941 Begins lessons at Harlem's Cosmopolitan Club
1942 Enters and wins her first tournament, sponsored by the all-black American Tennis Association (ATA)
1946 Moves to Wilmington, North Carolina, to work on her tennis game and enroll in high school
1949 Finishes tenth in her high school class; accepts tennis scholarship to Florida A&M University in Tallahassee
1950 Enters her first outdoor United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) tournaments; plays in the U.S. National Tennis Championships at Forest Hills
1951 Competes in the All-England Tennis Championships at Wimbledon
1953 Graduates from Florida A&M moves to Jefferson City, Missouri
1954 Works with coach Sydney Llewellyn
1955-56 Travels throughout Southeast Asia on a U.S. State Department-sponsored goodwill tour
1959 Releases soloist album; appears in the film The Horse Soldiers
1960 Tours with the Harlem Globetrotters playing exhibition tennis
1964 Launches her professional golf career
1965 Marries businessman Will A. Darben
1971 Retires from professional golf
1975 Becomes manager of the East Orange, New Jersey, Department of Recreation
1977 Runs for New Jersey State Senate; loses three-way Democratic primary in Essex County

Awards and Accomplishments

1944-45 American Tennis Association (ATA) junior champion
1947-56 ATA singles champion
1948-50, 1952-55 ATA mixed doubles champion
1949 Eastern Indoor Championships quarter-finalist and first black to play in a USLTA-sanctioned event
1956 French Open singles and doubles champion; Wimbledon doubles champion
1957 U.S. Clay Court singles and doubles champion; Australian doubles champion; Wimbledon singles and doubles champion; U.S. singles and mixed doubles champion; U.S. Wightman Cup team member
1957-58 Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year
1958 Wimbledon singles and doubles champion; U.S. singles champion; U.S. Wightman Cup member
1959 Pan American Games singles gold medalist
1964 First black to earn a Ladies Professional Golf Association card
1971 Inducted into International Tennis Hall of Fame
1980 Inducted into International Women's Sports Hall of Fame
1991 First female recipient of NCAA Theodore Roosevelt Award
2002 Inducted into National Women's Hall of Fame

When The United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA, now the USTA) was founded in 1881, it formally barred blacks from competing in its tournaments. Some Washington, D.C.-area clubs created the ATA in 1916, in response. The ATA today is the oldest African-American sports organization in the country. When Gibson began playing tennis in the 1940s, racial segregation was legal, even institutionalized, in the U.S. and would remain so until 1954. The lanky 5-foot 101/2-inch player had often tried to enter the USLTA national tournaments but to no avail. In 1950 she took the Eastern Grass Court Championships, second place in the National Indoor Championship, and made the quarterfinals in the National Clay Court Championships in Chicago. But the USLTA national championships continued to refuse her application. Finally, Alice Marble, a four-time U.S. Open winner, published an historical editorial in the July 1950 issue of American Lawn Tennis magazine: "If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen," Marble wrote, "it's also time we acted a little more like gentlepeople and less like sanctimonious hypocrites.If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it's only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts."

Attains World Dominance

That August, the USLTA accepted Gibson's application. She entered court 14 at Forest Hills and defeated Barbara Knapp in straight sets, 6-2, 6-2. Gibson led Denise Brough 7-6 in a tiebreaker in the next round, but a thunderstorm interceded. She dropped the tiebreaker 9-7, but made history as the first black to play at the U.S. Open. Gibson was ranked seventh in 1952, but fell to 70th the following year. Meanwhile, having graduated from college with a physical education degree, she worked in the athletic department at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. In 1955, tennis coach Sydney Llewellyn convinced her to return to the sport.

Llewellyn rebuilt her confidence and her game. She honed her serve-and-volley game and learned how to be patient at the baseline. She had an overpowering second serve. And she began to refine her court behavior. Simply having competed at Forest Hills opened many doors for Gibson, as it would later for other blacks, and she toured Southeast Asia on a goodwill mission for the U.S. State Department. While touring Europe and Africa, she won 16 of 18 tournaments. As a result, she was invited in 1956 to Wimbledon, where she lost to Ohio-born Shirley Fry, in the final Wimbledon attempt for Fry in her long career. Fry also defeated her at the U.S. Open that year.

Unshaken, Gibson returned to the grass court in 1957. It was to be a noteworthy year for the athlete and elsewhere. Gibson had won the French Open, her first major title, in 1956, and the Italian singles championships the previous year. In January 1957 she was Australian Open runner-up. Then, funded by a consortium of Harlem businessmen, Gibson returned to England. Back home, America was simmering with racial tension. Only two months earlier National Guardsmen had kept nine black students from entering the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. But in July, playing "with an

athleticism never before seen in women's tennis," according to Sports Illustrated 's Michael Bamberger, Gibson became the first black woman to win the Wimbledon singles title, defeating fellow American Darlene Hart, 6-3, 6-2, in less than an hour. The crowd "raised only an apathetic cheer" when Queen Elizabeth II presented the singles trophy to Gibson, Bamberger quoted his magazine's report at the time. In the States, however, the champion drew a cheering crowd at the airport in New York and received a Broadway ticker-tape parade.

"I didn't give a darn who was on the other side of the net," the Houston Chronicle quoted Gibson. "I'd knock you down if you got in the way. I just wanted to play my best." When she faced Brough at the U. S. Open that year, Gibson beat the 1947 champion for her first U.S. Open title, 6-3, 6-2, making Gibson the world's topranked female player. She repeated the feat the following year, winning both Wimbledon and U.S. Open singles titles, and women's doubles titles. The Associated Press named her Female Athlete of the Year in 1957 and 1958 and she became the first African American woman to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Unable to make enough money on the circuit, Gibson surprised fans and sportswriters and retired from pro tennis at age 30.

Life After Tennis

In 1958, Gibson published her autobiography I Always Wanted to Be Somebody. She began a career in music and theater. Sugar Ray Robinson had bought her a saxophone when she was a youngster, and she had a sultry singing voice, with which she enchanted the crowd at the 1957 Wimbledon ball. (She sang the romantic "I Can't Give You Anything but Love.") In 1959 she cut an album, Althea Gibson Sings, and she made a John Ford movie, The Horse Soldiers, co-starring John Wayne and William Holden. In 1959 Gibson turned professional and played a couple of exhibition basketball games touring with the Harlem Globetrotters. Making another incursion into a formerly elite sport, she became the first black member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association and played tournaments until 1967. The following year she published a second autobiography, So Much to Live For.

In the 1970s she coached women's and girls' sports, and from 1975 to 1977 became New Jersey athletic commissioner for boxing and wrestling. In 1977 she ran unsuccessfully in a three-way Democratic primary for the New Jersey Senate. She also served on the Governor's Council on Physical Fitness. A series of strokes limited her mobility and she retired in 1992. While mentally agile, Gibson suffers from arthritis and is confined to a wheelchair. When in the late 1990s friends, fans, and colleagues realized that the former champion was nearly destitute, they began a series of fundraisers, which netted $25,000 for the woman who had broken the tennis color barrier.

Gibson's Impact

Gibson had to be more than a tennis champion. She had to battle segregation, angering whites and also of some blacks who disdained Gibson for playing in what they considered a sport of privileged people. She also faced gender barriers. Fellow player Tony Trabert, who won the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open in 1955, said, "She hits the ball and plays like a man," Neil Amdur wrote in the New York Times.

But the sharecropper's daughter dispensed with expectations and comparisons. As the first African American to win a Grand Slam tennis tournament, Gibson paved the way for other minority players. And as an outstanding competitor, she paved the way for other women who wanted to play aggressive, serve-and-volley games. But she stood out mostly for her unfettered courage.

CONTACT INFORMATION

Address: P.O. Box 768, East Orange, NJ 07019. Email: [email protected] Online: www.altheagibson.com/.

SELECTED WRITINGS BY GIBSON:

I Always Wanted to Be Somebody, New York: Harper, 1958.

Related Biography: Tennis Player Alice Marble

California-born Alice Marble (1913-1990) was the first woman to capture both Wimbledon and U.S. Open singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles in the same year.

She learned her sport on the public courts of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Unable to afford a tennis racquet, she played with borrowed equipment until coach Eleanor Tennant discovered her. In exchange for lessons, Marble performed secretarial work for Tennant, who remained Marble's lifelong coach.

In 1934, while representing the United States in France, Marble collapsed on the court and was sent to a sanatorium to recover. Eight months later and against the advice of her physician, a bored Marble left the sanatorium and began to build up her strength and recover her game. The National Tennis Association officials, fearing her frailty, were reluctant to allow Marble to compete, but when in 1936 she won the national singles and mixed doubles championships, the world took notice of this serious challenger. Two years later she won Wimbledon, and in 1939 broke world records when she won the singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Marble's style of rushing the net evolved from lack of confidence in her ground strokes, but led to a playing style many women, such as Althea Gibson and Martina Navratilova, would emulate.

Marble confronted many difficulties. Going against the grain, she became a football reporter for WNEW radio in New York in 1940 and developed an avid following. Four years later, during World War II, she lost a baby during pregnancy and soon after learned her husband, Captain Joseph Norman Crowley, had been killed in Germany. Early in 1945 she risked her life in several missions as an Allied spy. She was an early feminist and tirelessly fought on behalf of women, homosexuals, and African Americans. In July 1950, Marble wrote her historic editorial in American Lawn Tennis magazine, denouncing the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association's policy of excluding blacks from competition. If Marble hadn't had such courage and stature among her peers, Althea Gibson might never have been allowed to compete. "Alice Marble was a great, kind, and gracious lady," Gibson recently said in ABC Sports Online forum, "and the one person that stood up for me in the tennis world, really the world at large."

Where Is She Now?

Living in seclusion at her home in East Orange, New Jersey, Gibson, who is well into her 70s and suffers from crippling arthritis, said in a recent online forum, "I want the public to remember me as they knew me: athletic, smart, and healthy. Remember me strong and tough and quick, fleet of footand tenacious." While avoiding the spotlight, Gibson has not disappeared altogether. As a co-founder of the Althea Gibson Foundation, she works to help inner-city youths gain an education. Of all her accomplishments, Gibson says helping children is "probably the best thing that I will ever do." The National First Ladies Library recently honored her in absentia for her leadership role in creating opportunities for minority athletes and children.

Gibson, Althea and Richard Curtis. So Much to Live For. New York: Putnam, 1968.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Books

Contemporary Black Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994.

Contemporary Heroes and Heroines, III. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.

Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.

Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001.

Gates, Henry Louis Jr., and Cornel West. The African American Century, New York: Free Press, 2000.

Johnson, Anne Janette. Great Women in Sports. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1996.

Notable Black American Women. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.

St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000.

Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1999.

Periodicals

"10 Greatest Women Athletes."Ebony (March 2002): 74.

Amdur, Neil. "After 50 Years, Gibson Hasn't Lost Her Luster." New York Times (April 26, 2002).

Bamberber, Michael. "Inside the White Lines: July 6, 1957: Althea Gibson Wins Wimbledon." Sports Illustrated (November 29, 1999): 114.

Janoff, Murray. "Tennis' Greatest Trailblazer." Sporting News (June 24, 1972).

Other

"Althea Gibson Answers Your Questions." ABC Sports Online. www.espn.go.com/(December 20, 2002).

Althea Gibson Official Web site. http://www.altheagibson.com/ (December 16, 2002).

Biography Resource Center. http://galenet.galegroup.com/ (December 16, 2002; December 20, 2002).

History of Jim Crow. http://www.jimcrowhistory.org (December 17, 2002).

Houston Chronicle. http://www.chron.com (December 16, 2002).

Intercollegiate Tennis Association. http://www.wm.edu/ (December 20, 2002).

International Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/ (December 16, 2002).

International Tennis Hall of Fame. http://www.tennisfame.org/ (December 16, 2002; December 19, 2002; December 20, 2002).

National First Ladies' Library. http://www.firstladies.org/ (December 20, 2002).

Sports Illustrated for Women. http://www.sportsillustrated.cnn.com/ (December 18, 2002).

Women's History. www.womenshistory.about.com/(December 16, 2002).

Sketch by Jane Summer

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Gibson, Althea 1927–2003

Althea Gibson 19272003

Professional tennis player, golfer, coach, singer

Chose Tennis Over Education

Faced Racism in Professional Tennis

Became Wimbledon Champion

Sought Other Careers

Receieved Honors Late in Life

Selected writings

Sources

Althea Gibsons accomplishments in tennis rank among the most inspiring in modern professional sports. At a time when the game of tennis was completely dominated by whites, Gibson emerged with enough talent and determination to win multiple championships at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the late 1950s. Gibson was not only the first black woman to compete in these prestigious tournaments, she was also the first black person ever to win a tennis title. Having achieved national prominence in a sport long associated with upper-class whites, she became a role model for blacks of both sexes who sought the right to compete in previously segregated sporting events. Doors of opportunity that Gibson opened in both tennis and golf have been pursued by the likes of Arthur Ashe and Zena Garrison in tennis, and Calvin Peete in professional golf.

The titles of Gibsons two memoirs, I Always Wanted To Be Somebody, and So Much To Live For, serve as testimony to her personality and ambition. Her difficult childhood in a Harlem ghetto offered her little in the way of encouragement, but timely help from tennis coaches and supportive black professionals gave her opportunities never before extended to a black woman. Gibson forged into the previously all-white field of womens tennis with the conviction that racism could not stop her, and she handled difficult situations with a grace and earthy humor that brought her a firm following among American sports fans.

Chose Tennis Over Education

The oldest of five children, Althea Gibson was born in Silver, South Carolina, on April 25, 1927. At the time of her birth, her father was working as a sharecropper on a cotton farm. The crops failed several years in a row, and the impoverished Gibson family moved to New York City in 1930 where her aunt was said to have made a living by selling bootleg whiskey. There they settled in a small apartment in Harlem, and four more children were born.

In her memoirs Gibson described herself as a restless youngster who longed to be somebody but had little idea how to pursue that goal. School was not the answer for her. She often played hooky to go to the movies and had little rapport with her teachers. After finishing middle school, despite her truancy problems, she was promoted to the Yorkville Trade School. Her

At a Glance

Born on August 25, 1927, in Silver, South Carolina; died on September 28, 2003, in East Orange, New Jersey; daughter of Daniel (a mechanic) and Anna (Washington) Gibson; married William A. Darben, October 17, 1965 (divorced); married Sidney Llewellyn, April 11, 1983. Education: Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, BS, 1953.

Career: Tennis player, 1941-58; author, 1958, 1968; singer, musician, spokesperson for products, and actress, 1958-63; Ladies Professional Golf Tour, golfer, 1963-67; tennis coach, member of athletic commissions, and associate of Essex County (NJ) Park Commission, c. 1970-92.

Awards: Winner of national Negro girls championships, 1944, 1945, 1948-56; winner of English singles and doubles championships at Wimbledon, 1957 and 1958; winner of U.S. national singles championships at Forest Hills, 1957 and 1958; named Woman Athlete of Yr., AP Poll, 1957-58; named to Lawn Tennis Hall of Fame and Tennis Mus., 1971, Black Athletes Hall of Fame, 1974, S.C. Hall of Fame, 1983, Fla. Sports Hall of Fame, 1984, Sports Hall of Fame of NJ, 1994.

problems continued there and became so severe that she was referred to a series of social workers, some of whom threatened her with the prospect of reform school.

Solace was hard to find for the brash youngster. Movies and stage shows at the Apollo Theater offered a glimpse of another world beyond the crowded Harlem streets, and Gibson longed for that worldand her own independence. Even before she was of legal age to drop out of school she applied for working papers and quit attending her classes. She held a series of jobs but was not able to keep any of them very long. A promise to attend night school lasted through only two weeks of classes. By the time she was 14, Gibson was a ward of the New York City Welfare Department. The social workers helped her to find steady work, and they steered her into the local Police Athletic League sports programs.

Gibsons first contact with tennis was through the game of paddleball. The game is similar to conventional tennis but uses wooden paddles instead of rackets. In paddleball Gibson found a challenge she could answer. She would practice swatting balls against a wall for hours at a time, and before long she was winning local tournaments. Her prowess brought her to the attention of musician Buddy Walker, a part-time city recreation department employee. Walker encouraged her to switch to regular tennis and even bought her a racketa second-hand model he re-strung himself. Walker also introduced Gibson to the members of the interracial New York Cosmopolitan Club. Some of them were also impressed with Gibsons natural talents, and they sponsored her for junior membership and private lessons with a professional named Fred Johnson.

The well-to-do members of the Cosmopolitan Clubparticularly a socialite named Rhoda Smithhelped Gibson to curb her wild behavior and adopt a more reasonable and conservative lifestyle. Just one year after her lessons began in 1941, Gibson won her first important tournament, the New York State Open Championship. In 1943 she won the New York State Negro girls singles championship, and in 1944 and 1945 captured the National Negro girls championship.

Faced Racism in Professional Tennis

Even though she lost the 1946 Negro girls championship, Gibson drew the backing of two quite influential patrons. A pair of surgeons, Dr. Hubert Eaton of Wilmington, North Carolina, and Dr. Robert Johnson of Lynchburg, Virginia, made Gibson an attractive offer. They would provide room and board for her and pay for her tennis lessons if she agreed to finish high school at the same time. Gibson accepted and moved to Wilmington to live with Eatons family. There she attended the local public school and practiced her tennis moves on Eatons private court. In the summertime she returned to Harlem for coaching by Fred Johnson. Beginning in 1948, Gibson won nine consecutive Negro national championships, a feat that quickly brought her recognition within the white tennis community as well.

Having finally realized the value of a good education, Gibson graduated tenth in her class at North Carolinas Williston Industrial High School in 1949. She then accepted a tennis scholarship to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee. She wanted to study music, as she could play the saxophone and had a fine singing voice. Counselors at the college persuaded her to stay with tennis, and she majored in physical education instead.

The biggest battle of Gibsons college years was securing the right to compete in major tennis tournaments against white opponents. That she had the talent to do so could not be denied, but many of the clubs that hosted major tournaments did not admit blacks. In 1950 Gibson sought an invitation from the United States Lawn Tennis Association to play in the National Grass Court championships at Forest Hills, Long Island. The invitation never came. Other tournaments at private clubs barred her as well. Frustrated but undefeated by the rampant racism, Gibson expressed her disappointment in a dignified and professional manner. Before too long she began to find allies in prominent positions.

One such ally was Alice Marble, an editor of American Lawn Tennis magazine. In the July 1950 issue of that periodical, Marble wrote a piece about the color barrier keeping Gibson from the top competitions. The entrance of Negroes into national tennis is as inevitable as it has proven in baseball, in football, or in boxing; there is no denying so much talent, Marble contended. The committee at Forest Hills has the power to stifle the efforts of one Althea Gibson, who may or may not be succeeded by others of her race who have equal or superior ability. They will knock at the door as she has done. Eventually the tennis world will rise up en masse to protest the injustices perpetrated by our policymakers. Eventuallywhy not now?

Became Wimbledon Champion

The reaction to the editorial was almost instantaneous. Within one month of its publication, Gibson was invited to the national tournament at Forest Hills, as well as a number of other important competitions that had once been closed to her. In her first appearance at Forest Hills, Gibson advanced to the second round where she met Wimbledon champion Louise Brough. Gibson was leading in a tie-breaking set, 7-6, when play was interrupted by a severe thunderstorm. When the game resumed the next day, a frazzled Gibsonwho had been hounded by the media throughout the delaylost the match 9-7.

The following three years saw even greater disappointments. In 1952 Gibson was ranked seventh nationally in womens singles; the following year she dropped to 70th. Gibson seriously considered retiring from tennis completely, especially after she earned a Bachelors degree in 1953, and took a teaching position at Lincoln University in Missouri. A former Harlem coach, Sydney Llewellyn, encouraged her to return to the circuit, and in 1955 she was chosen as one of four American women sent on a good will tennis tour of Southeast Asia and Mexico. In the months that followed those trips, Gibson also played in tournaments in Sweden, Germany, France, England, Italy, and Egypt, winning in 16 of 18 appearances. She raised her fortunes even higher in 1956 when she won her first major singles title at the French Open.

Black people seeking equal treatment in all walks of American life pointed proudly to the success of Althea Gibson in 1957 and 1958. The game of tennis has no more prestigious tournament than that held at Wimbledon in England every year. Not only was Gibson the first black ever to appear in that tournament, she was seeded first both years and won the Wimbledon singles and doubles championships both years. In 1957 Gibson defeated Darlene Hard in the singles competition, 6-3, 6-2, and then teamed with Hard in the victorious doubles match. Gibson returned to a ticker-tape parade in New York City and then proceeded to defeat her old nemesis Louise Brough at the U.S. national championships at Forest Hills. Returning to Wimbledon in 1958, she beat Great Britains Angela Mortimer 8-6, 6-2 in singles and then paired with Brazilian star Maria Bueno for the doubles win. Yet another U.S. national championship followed that summer.

Sought Other Careers

It seemed that Gibsons future in tennis was quite secure by 1958. Although she had just turned 30, she was at the top of her game and had achieved international acclaim. Then she shocked the world by announcing her retirement from the sport. She admitted that the most pressing reason for her decision was moneyshe simply did not make enough playing tennis to meet her needs. In the wake of her announcement, Gibson began to earn far more by trading upon her fame. She embarked on a singing career that took her to the Ed Sullivan Show and led to the release of several albums; she received product endorsement contracts; she even appeared in a John Ford Western, The Horse Soldiers, with John Wayne and William Holden.

The lure of sports was a powerful one, however. By 1963 Gibson had embarked on another quest, just as ground-breaking as the first. She qualified for the Ladies Professional Golf Association and began competing in important golf tournamentsthe first black woman to achieve that honor. Gibson never had the success with golf that she had with tennis, however. She never won a tournament and took home little prize money, although she participated in the LPGA tour from 1963 until 1967. As late as 1990, she attempted a comeback with the LPGA but failed to qualify.

In the 1970s and 1980s Gibson also served as a tennis coach and a mentor to athletes, especially young black women. Her views on modern tennis stars were solicited regularly, and she showed a particular admiration for Martina Navratilova. Having married a New Jersey businessman named William A. Darben, Gibson concentrated her efforts in Essex County, New Jersey, where she served for many years on the Park Commission. She also took posts with the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board and the Governors Council on Physical Fitness. Darben and Gibson were divorced and Gibson later married Sidney Llewellyn. Gibson retired in 1992, save for personal appearances in connection with golf or tennis events.

No other black woman athlete has yet risen to the prominence in tennis that Gibson achieved in the 1950s where Gibson ultimately won 56 tournaments. In 1971 Gibson was elected to the Tennis Hall of Fame. In 1990 Zena Garrison advanced to the Wimbledon finals but was defeated; she was the only other black woman star to have advanced so far in the game by that time. This does not in any way diminish Althea Gibsons contribution to American sports. Her determination to play in the top tournaments at a time when blacks had little access to the exclusive tennis clubs helped to create a climate of acceptance that persists to this day. Elitism may never be completely eliminated in sports such as golf and tennis, but the contributions of Althea Gibsonand their effect on subsequent generations of black American athletesare of lasting value to the sporting world.

Receieved Honors Late in Life

Gibsons health later started to fade, and by 1997, according to Time magazine, Gibson [was] suffering in silence from a series of strokes and ailments brought on by a disease she [was] simply said to have described as terminal. She had all but faded from the publics eye and it seemed she would die quiet and alone without anyone noticing. But some female athletes and coaches hearing about how she was living in all but poverty in East Orange, New Jersey, because her medical bills were overwhelming her, staged a benefit and tribute to the great Althea Gibson and raised, eventually, close to $100,000 to help defray the costs of her medical care. When Gibson learned of the effort that went into raising all the money to help her, her spirits were much lifted and her health improved somewhat.

In 1997 the Arthur Ashe Stadium was dedicated in New York to fellow black tennis great Arthur Ashe. The event took place on Gibsons 70th birthday and accolades were raised to her as well. In 1999 East Orange, New Jersey, dedicated the Althea Gibson Early Childhood Education Academy in Gibsons honor. The schools purpose, according to Tennis magazine, was to provide kids ages six and under with a safe, nurturing environment in which to grow. Betty Deb-naun, the principal of the new school said, Its only fitting to name the school after a woman as great as Althea Gibson. She excelled in everything she did. Shes a living legend. Also in 1999 a documentary of Gibsons life was published, an obvious indication that Gibsons accomplishments had not been forgotten. In 2000 The Sports Authority took upon itself to rank the ten top moments in womens sports. Gibsons becoming the first black woman to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open was named one of the ten.

On September 28, 2003, Gibson died after a long illness of respiratory failure at East Orange General Hospital in New Jersey. She was 76-years-old. According to the Sports Network several hundred mourners showed up to pay their respects to Gibson. David Dinkins, former mayor of New York spoke at the service about her greatness. Among other things Din-kins reminded listeners of a very important fact: A lot of folks stood on the shoulders of Althea Gibson. And this is something that people should never forget.

Selected writings

I Always Wanted To Be Somebody, Harper, 1958. So Much To Live For, Putnam, 1968.

Sources

Books

Ashe, Arthur, A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete since 1946, Warner Books, 1988.

Gibson, Althea, Always Wanted To Be Somebody, Harper, 1958.

Gibson, Althea, So Much To Live For, Putnam, 1968.

Henderson, Edwin B., and others, The Black Athlete: Emergence and Arrival, Publishers Agency, 1976.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1992.

St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, St. James Press, 2000.

Periodicals

American School & University, November, 1999, p. 28.

Black Enterprise, September, 1997, p. 144.

Ebony, November, 1997, p. 146; March, 2002, p. 74.

Jet, March 30, 1987, p. 49; October 13, 2003, p. 51.

Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, March 27, 1997.

Library Journal, March 1, 1999, p. 125.

Newsweek, October 13, 2003, p. 12.

Sports Illustrated, September 10, 1990, p. 26; November 29, 1999, p. 114.

Sports Network, October 2, 2003.

Tennis, September, 1999, p. 37.

Time, September, 8, 1997, p. 4.

WWD, November 17, 2000, p. 23.

Mark Kram and Catherine V. Donaldson

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Gibson, Althea 1927–

Althea Gibson 1927

Professional tennis player, golfer, coach, singer

At a Glance

Why Not Now?

Wimbledon Champion

Sources

Althea Gibsons accomplishments in tennis rank among the most inspiring in modern professional sports. At a time when the game of tennis was completely dominated by whites, Gibson emerged with enough talent and determination to win multiple championships at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the late 1950s. Gibson was not only the first black woman to compete in these prestigious tournaments, she was also the first black person ever to win a tennis title. Having achieved national prominence in a sport long associated with upper-class whites, she became a role model for blacks of both sexes who sought the right to compete in previously segregated sporting events. Doors of opportunity that Gibson opened in both tennis and golf have been pursued by the likes of Arthur Ashe and Zena Garrison in tennis and Calvin Peete in professional golf.

The titles of Gibsons two memoirs, / Always Wanted to Be Somebody, and So Much to Live for, serve as testimony to her personality and ambition. Her difficult childhood in a Harlem ghetto offered her little in the way of encouragement, but timely help from tennis coaches and supportive black professionals gave her opportunities never before extended to a black woman. Gibson forged into the previously all-white field of womens tennis with the conviction that racism could not stop her, and she handled difficult situations with a grace and earthy humor that brought her a firm following among American sports fans.

The oldest of five children, Althea Gibson was born in Silver, South Carolina on April 25, 1927. At the time of her birth, her father was working as a sharecropper on a cotton farm. The crops failed several years in a row, and the impoverished Gibson family moved to New York City. There they settled in a small apartment in Harlem, and four more children were born.

In her memoirs Gibson described herself as a restless youngster who longed to be somebody but had little idea how to pursue that goal. School was not the answer for her. She often played hooky to go to the movies and had little rapport with her teachers. After finishing middle school despite her truancy problems, she was promoted to the Yorkville Trade School. Her problems continued there and became so severe that she was referred to a series of social workers, some of whom threatened her with the prospect of reform school.

Solace was hard to find for the brash youngster. Movies

At a Glance

Born August 25, 1927, in Silver, SC; daughter of Daniel (a mechanic) and Anna (Washington) Gibson; married, husbands name William A. Darben. Education: Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, B.S., 1953.

Tennis player; winner of national Negro girls championships, 1944, 1945, 1948-56; winner of English singles and doubles championships at Wimbledon, 1957 and 1958; winner of U.S. national singles championships at Forest Hills, 1957 and 1958- Singer, musician, spokesperson for products, and actress, 1958-63; member of Ladies Professional Golf Tour, 1963-67; tennis coach, member of athletic commissions, and associate of Essex County (NJ) Park Commission, c. 1970-92. Author, / Always Wanted to Be Somebody, Harper, 1958, So Much to Live For, Putnam, 1968.

Addresses: Home P.O. Box 768, East Orange, NJ 07019.

and stage shows at the Apollo Theater offered a glimpse of another world beyond the crowded Harlem streets, and Gibson longed for that worldand her own independence. Even before she was of legal age to drop out of school she applied for working papers and quit attending her classes. She held a series of jobs but was not able to keep any of them very long. A promise to attend night school lasted through only two weeks of classes. By the time she was 14, Gibson was a ward of the New York City Welfare Department. The social workers helped her to find steady work, and they steered her into the local Police Athletic League sports programs.

Gibsons first contact with tennis was through the game of paddleball. The game is similar to conventional tennis but uses wooden paddles instead of rackets. In paddleball Gibson found a challenge she could answer. She would practice swatting balls against a wall for hours at a time, and before long she was winning local tournaments. Her prowess brought her to the attention of musician Buddy Walker, a part-time city recreation department employee. Walker encouraged her to switch to regular tennis and even bought her a racketa second-hand model he re-strung himself. Walker also introduced Gibson to the members of the interracial New York Cosmopolitan Club. Some of them were also impressed with Gibsons natural talents, and they sponsored her for junior membership and private lessons with a professional named Fred Johnson.

The well-to-do members of the Cosmopolitan Clubparticularly a socialite named Rhoda Smithhelped Gibson to curb her wild behavior and adopt a more reasonable and conservative lifestyle. Just one year after her lessons began in 1941, Gibson won her first important tournament, the New York State Open Championship. In 1943 she won the New York State Negro girls singles championship, and in 1944 and 1945 captured the national Negro girls championship.

Even though she lost the 1946 Negro girls championship, Gibson drew the backing of two quite influential patrons. A pair of surgeons, Dr. Hubert Eaton of Wilmington, North Carolina, and Dr. Robert Johnson of Lynchburg, Virginia, made Gibson an attractive offer. They would provide room and board for her and pay for her tennis lessons if she agreed to finish high school at the same time. Gibson accepted and moved to Wilmington to live with Eatons family. There she attended the local public school and practiced her tennis moves on Eatons private court. In the summertime she returned to Harlem for coaching by Fred Johnson. Beginning in 1948, Gibson won nine consecutive Negro national championships, a feat that quickly brought her recognition within the white tennis community as well.

Why Not Now?

Having finally realized the value of a good education, Gibson graduated tenth in her class at North Carolinas Williston Industrial High School in 1949. She then accepted a tennis scholarship to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee. She wanted to study music, as she could play the saxophone and had a fine singing voice. Counselors at the college persuaded her to stay with tennis, and she majored in physical education instead.

The biggest battle of Gibsons college years was securing the right to compete in major tennis tournaments against white opponents. That she had the talent to do so could not be denied, but many of the clubs that hosted major tournaments did not admit blacks. In 1950 Gibson sought an invitation from the United States Lawn Tennis Association to play in the national grass court championships at Forest Hills, Long Island. The invitation never came. Other tournaments at private clubs barred her as well. Frustrated but undefeated by the rampant racism, Gibson expressed her disappointment in a dignified and professional manner. Before too long she began to find allies in prominent positions.

One such ally was Alice Marble, an editor of American Lawn Tennis magazine. In the July 1950 issue of that periodical, Marble wrote a piece about the color barrier keeping Gibson from the top competitions. The entrance of Negroes into national tennis is as inevitable as it has proven in baseball, in football, or in boxing; there is no denying so much talent, Marble contended. The committee at Forest Hills has the power to stifle the efforts of one Althea Gibson, who may or may not be succeeded by others of her race who have equal or superior ability. They will knock at the door as she has done. Eventually the tennis world will rise up en masse to protest the injustices perpetrated by our policymakers. Eventuallywhy not now?

The reaction to the editorial was almost instantaneous. Within one month of its publication, Gibson was invited to the national tournament at Forest Hills, as well as a number of other important competitions that had once been closed to her. In her first appearance at Forest Hills, Gibson advanced to the second round where she met Wimbledon champion Louise Brough. Gibson was leading in a tie-breaking set, 7-6, when play was interrupted by a severe thunderstorm. When the game resumed the next day, a frazzled Gibsonwho had been hounded by the media throughout the delaylost the match 9-7.

The following three years saw even greater disappointments. In 1952 Gibson was ranked seventh nationally in womens singles; the following year she dropped to 70th. Gibson seriously considered retiring from tennis completely, especially after she earned a bachelors degree in 1953, and took a teaching position at Lincoln University in Missouri. A former Harlem coach, Sydney Llewellyn, encouraged her to return to the circuit, and in 1955 she was chosen as one of four American women sent on a good will tennis tour of Southeast Asia and Mexico. In the months that followed those trips, Gibson also played in tournaments in Sweden, Germany, France, England, Italy, and Egypt, winning in 16 of 18 appearances.

Wimbledon Champion

Black people seeking equal treatment in all walks of American life pointed proudly to the success of Althea Gibson in 1957 and 1958. The game of tennis has no more prestigious tournament than that held at Wimbledon in England every year. Not only was Gibson the first black ever to appear in that tournament, she was seeded first both years and won the Wimbledon singles and doubles championships both years. In 1957 Gibson defeated Darlene Hard in the singles competition, 6-3, 6-2, and then teamed with Hard in the victorious doubles match. Gibson returned to a ticker-tape parade in New York City and then proceeded to defeat her old nemesis Louise Brough at the U.S. national championships at Forest Hills. Returning to Wimbledon in 1958, she beat Great Britains Angela Mortimer 8-6, 6-2 in singles and then paired with Brazilian star Maria Bueno for the doubles win. Yet another U.S. national championship followed that summer.

It seemed that Gibsons future in tennis was quite secure by 1958. Although she had just turned 30, she was at the top of her game and had achieved international acclaim. Then she shocked the world by announcing her retirement from the sport. She admitted that the most pressing reason for her decision was moneyshe simply did not make enough playing tennis to meet her needs. In the wake of her announcement, Gibson began to earn far more by trading upon her fame. She embarked on a singing career that took her to the Ed Sullivan Show and led to the release of several albums; she received product endorsement contracts; she even appeared in a John Ford western, The Horse Soldiers, with John Wayne and William Holden.

The lure of sports was a powerful one, however. By 1963 Gibson had embarked on another quest, just as groundbreaking as the first. She qualified for the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) and began competing in important golf tournamentsthe first black woman to achieve that honor. Gibson never had the success with golf that she had with tennis, however. She never won a tournament and took home little prize money, although she participated in the LPGA tour from 1963 until 1967. As late as 1990, she attempted a comeback with the LPGA but failed to qualify.

In the 1970s and 1980s Gibson also served as a tennis coach and a mentor to athletes, especially young black women. Her views on modern tennis stars were solicited regularly, and she showed a particular admiration for Martina Navratilova. Having married a New Jersey businessman named William A. Darben, Gibson concentrated her efforts in Essex County, New Jersey, where she served for many years on the Park Commission. She also took posts with the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board and the Governors Council on Physical Fitness. Gibson retired in 1992, save for personal appearances in connection with golf or tennis events.

No other black woman athlete has yet risen to the prominence in tennis that Gibson achieved in the 1950s. In 1990 Zena Garrison advanced to the Wimbledon finals but was defeated; she is the only other black woman star to have advanced so far in the game. This does not in any way diminish Althea Gibsons contribution to American sports. Her determination to play in the top tournaments at a time when blacks had little access to the exclusive tennis clubs helped to create a climate of acceptance that persists to this day. Elitism may never be completely eliminated in sports such as golf and tennis, but the contributions of Althea Gibsonand their effect on subsequent generations of black American athletesare of lasting value to the sporting world.

Sources

Books

Ashe, Arthur, A Hard Road to Glory;: A History of the African-American Athlete Since 1946, Warner Books, 1988.

Gibson, Althea, / Always Wanted to Be Somebody, Harper, 1958.

Gibson, Althea, So Much to Live For, Putnam, 1968.

Henderson, Edwin B., and others, The Black Athlete: Emergence and Arrival, Publishers Agency, 1976.

Smith, Jessie Carney, editor, Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1992.

Periodicals

Jet, March 30, 1987, p. 49.

Sports Illustrated, September 10, 1990, p. 26.

Mark Kram

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Gibson, Althea

Althea Gibson

Born: August 25, 1927
Silver, South Carolina

African American tennis player

Althea Gibson is noted not only for her exceptional abilities as a tennis player, but for breaking the color barrier in the 1950s as the first African American to compete in national and international tennis.

Childhood in Harlem

Althea Gibson was born in Silver, South Carolina, on August 25, 1927. She was the first of Daniel and Anna Washington Gibson's five children. Her parents worked on a cotton farm, but when she was three years old the family moved north to the Harlem area of New York City. Gibson caused a lot of problems as a child and often missed school. Her father was very strict with her on these occasions, but he also taught her to box, a skill that he figured would come in handy in the rough neighborhood the Gibson family lived in.

Tennis success

When Gibson was ten years old, she became involved with the Police Athletic League (PAL) movement known as "play streets." PAL was an attempt to help troubled children establish work habits they would need later in life. In 1940 PAL promoted paddle ball (a game similar to handball except that it is played using a wooden racket) competitions in Harlem. After three summers of playing the game Gibson was so good that the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club sponsored her to learn the game of tennis and proper social behavior.

In 1942 Gibson began winning tournaments sponsored by the American Tennis Association (ATA), the African American version of the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA). In 1944 and 1945 Gibson won the ATA National Junior Championships. In 1946 several politically minded African Americans identified Gibson as having the talent to help break down organized racism (unequal treatment based on race) in the United States. Sponsored by Hubert Eaton and Walter Johnson (18871946) and inspired by boxer Sugar Ray Robinson (19211989), Gibson was soon winning every event on the ATA schedule. In 1949 she entered A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, on a tennis scholarship and prepared for the difficult task of breaking the color barrier in tournament tennis.

Breaking the color barrier

The USLTA finally allowed Gibson to play in the 1950 Nationals when four-time U.S. singles and doubles (a two-person team) champion Alice Marble (1913) spoke out on her behalf. Gibson lost her first match of the tournament, but the breakthrough had been made. Over the next several years Gibson worked as a physical education teacher at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. She also continued playing tennis and rose up the USLTA rankings (ninth in 1952, seventh in 1953). After a year of touring the world and playing special events for the U.S. State Department, Gibson staged a full-scale assault on the tennis world in 1956. That year she won the French Open in both singles and doubles.

Over the next two years Gibson was the leading women's tennis player in the world. In 1957 and 1958 she won both the Wimbledon and U.S. National singles titles, becoming the first African American to win a Wimbledon singles title. In 1958 she wrote a book about her life called I Always Wanted to Be Somebody. After her 1958 victory at the U.S. Nationals, Gibson retired from tennis and played professional golf. She was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971.

Later years

In 1994 Gibson suffered a stroke that left her confined to her home. In February 2001 her picture was featured on a Wheaties cereal box as part of a special Black History Month package. Later that year tennis stars Venus (1980) and Serena Williams (1981) were honored at an Althea Gibson Foundation dinner that raised $100,000 for scholarships and youth development programs. Through a spokeswoman, Gibson congratulated the Williams sisters for having grown into two of the best tennis players in the world.

For More Information

Biracree, Tom. Althea Gibson. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.

Davidson, Sue. Changing the Game. Seattle, WA: Seal Press, 1997.

Gibson, Althea. I Always Wanted to Be Somebody. Edited by Ed Fitzgerald. New York: Harper, 1958.

Jones, Betty Millsaps. Wonder Women of Sports. New York: Random House, 1981.

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Althea Gibson

Althea Gibson

Althea Gibson is noted not only for her exceptional abilities as a tennis player, but for breaking the color barrier in the 1950s as the first African American to compete in national and international tennis.

Born in Silver, South Carolina, in 1927, Althea Gibson became the dominant female athlete of the late 1950s in a sport well known for its custom of racial segregation. Tennis was not Gibson's first sport; instead, she shot pool, bowled, and played basketball. She even boxed a little.

Childhood in Harlem

During the Depression the Gibson family moved north to Harlem. When she was ten years old, Gibson became involved with the Police Athletic League (PAL) movement known as "play streets." Essentially, PAL was an attempt to help troubled children establish work habits they would use later in life. In 1940 in Harlem, PAL promoted paddleball. After three summers of paddleball competition Gibson was so good that the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club sponsored her to learn the game of tennis and proper social behavior.

In 1942 Gibson began winning tournaments sponsored by the American Tennis Association (ATA), the black counterpart to the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA). In 1944 and 1945 Gibson won the ATA National Junior Championships. In 1946 Gibson was recognized by politically astute blacks as a player who could help break down institutionalized racism in the United States. Sponsored by Hubert Eaton and Walter Johnson and inspired by Sugar Ray Robinson, Gibson soon dominated every event on the ATA schedule. By the beginning of the 1950s she was ready to endure the hardship of breaking the color barrier in tennis.

Breaking the Color Barrier

Gibson had a powerful ally: four-time U.S. singles and doubles champion Alice Marble. The USLTA finally allowed Gibson to play in the 1950 Nationals when Marble intervened on her behalf. Gibson lost her first match of the tournament, but the entrance had been made. Over the next several years Gibson rose in the USLTA rankings (ninth in 1952, seventh in 1953). After a year of touring the world, playing special events for the U.S. State Department, Gibson staged a full-scale assault on the tennis world in 1956. That year she won the French Open in both singles and doubles.

Tennis Dominance

Over the next two years Gibson was the dominant women's tennis player in the world. In 1957 and 1958 she won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals. In 1958 she wrote a book about her life called I Always Wanted to Be Somebody.

Further Reading

Tom Biracree, Althea Gibson (New York: Chelsea House, 1989).

Betty Millsaps Jones, Wonder Women of Sports (New York: Random House, 1981).

Pat Ross, ed., Young and Female: Turning Points in the Lives of Eight American Women, Personal Accounts (New York: Random House, 1972). □

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Gibson, Althea

Althea Gibson (ălthē´ə), 1927–2003, African-American tennis player, b. Silver, S.C. In 1948 she won the first of 10 straight national black women's singles championships. She was the first African American to play in the U.S. grass court championships at Forest Hills, N.Y. (1950), and at Wimbledon, England (1951). In addition to many international tournament victories, she won the French women's singles championship in 1956 and the U.S. and British championships in both 1957 and 1958. She retired from competition in 1958. In 1971 she was named to the National Lawn Tennis Hall of Fame.

See her autobiography, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody (1958).

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Gibson, Althea

Gibson, Althea

August 25, 1927
September 28, 2003


Althea Gibson was the first black tennis player to win the sport's major titles. Born in Silver, South Carolina, to a garage hand and a housewife, she came to New York City at age three to live with an aunt. The oldest of five children, she was a standout athlete at Public School 136 and began playing paddleball under Police Athletic League auspices on West 143rd Street in Harlem. In 1940 she was introduced to tennis by Fred Johnson, a one-armed instructor, at the courts (now named after him) on 152nd Street. She was an immediate sensation.

Gibson became an honorary member of Harlem's socially prominent Cosmopolitan Tennis Club (now defunct) and won her first tournamentthe American Tennis Association (ATA) junior girls titlein 1945. (The ATA is the oldest continuously operated black noncollegiate sports organization in America). Although Gibson lost in the finals of the ATA women's singles in 1946, she attracted the attention of two black physicians: Dr. Hubert Eaton of Wilmington, North Carolina, and Dr. R. Walter Johnson of Lynchburg, Virginia, who tried to advance her career.

In September 1946 Gibson entered high school in Wilmington while living with the Eatons, and she graduated in 1949. She won the ATA women's single title ten years in a row, from 1947 to 1956. As the best black female tennis player ever, she was encouraged to enter U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (the white governing body of tennis) events. Jackie Robinson had just completed his third year in major league baseball, and pressure was being applied on other sports to integrate. Although she was a reluctant crusader, Gibson was finally admitted to play in the USLTA Nationals at Forest Hills, New York, on August 28, 1950.

Alice Marble, the former USLTA singles champion, wrote a letter, published in the July 1950 issue of American Lawn Tennis magazine, admonishing the USLTA for its reluctance to admit Gibson when she was clearly more than qualified. Gibson's entry was then accepted at two major events in the summer of 1950 before her Forest Hills debut. She was warmly received at the Nationals, where she lost a two-day, rain-delayed match to the numbertwo-seeded Louise Brough in the second round.

Gibson's breakthrough heralded more to come. The ATA began a serious junior development program to provide opportunities for promising black children. (Out of that program came Arthur Ashe, who became the first black male winner of the sport's major titles.) Sydney Llewelyn became Gibson's coach, and her rise was meteoric. Her first grand slam title was the French singles in Paris in 1956. Before she turned professional, she added the Wimbledon and the U.S. singles in both 1957 and 1958, and the French women's doubles and the U.S. mixed doubles. She was a Wightman Cup team member in 1957 and 1958. After her Wimbledon victory, she was presented her trophy by Queen Elizabeth II, she danced with the queen's husband, Prince Philip, at the Wimbledon Ball, and New York City accorded her a ticker-tape parade.

The poise she showed at Wimbledon and at other private clubs where USLTA-sanctioned events were played was instilled by Dr. Eaton's wife and by her time spent as an undergraduate at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida. Jake Gaither, FAMU's famed athletic director, helped secure a teaching position for her in physical education at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. In the winter of 195556, the State Department asked her to tour Southeast Asia with Ham Richardson, Bob Perry, and Karol Fageros.

In 1957 Gibson won the Babe Didrickson Zaharias Trophy as Female Athlete of the Year, the first black female athlete to win the award. She also began an attempt at a career as a singer, taking voice lessons three times a week. While singing at New York City's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel for a tribute to famed songwriter W. C. Handy, she landed an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in May 1958. Moderately successful as a singer, she considered a professional tour with tennis player Jack Kramer, the American champion of the 1940s. She also became an avid golfer, encouraged by Joe Louis, the former world heavyweight champion, who was a golf enthusiast. Louis had also paid her way to her first Wimbledon championships.

The Ladies Professional Golfers Association (LPGA) was in its infancy and purses were small. But Gibson was a quick learner and was soon nearly a "scratch" player. She received tips from Ann Gregory, who had been the best black female golfer ever. Gibson, a naturally gifted athlete, could handle the pressure of professional sports. But the purses offered on the LPGA tour were too small to maintain her interest.

In 1986 New Jersey governor Tom Kean appointed Gibson to the state's Athletic Commission. She became a sought-after teaching professional at several private clubs in central and northern New Jersey and devoted much of her time to counseling young black players. The first black female athlete to enjoy true international fame, Gibson was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971.

In 1997 Gibson was honored with a ceremony at the U.S. Open. At about this time her health was failing and she was living in near poverty because of her medical bills when a group of athletes and coaches staged a benefit that raised $100,000 to help defray her expenses. While her health initially improved somewhat, it gradually deteriorated until her death in 2003. On September 7, 2004 she was honored posthumously at a ceremony at the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York.

See also Tennis; Williams, Venus and Serena

Bibliography

Gibson, Althea. I Always Wanted to Be Somebody. New York: Harper & Row, 1958.

Gibson, Althea, with Richard Curtis. So Much to Live For. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1968.

Schoenfeld, Bruce. The Match: Althea Gibson and Angela Buxton: How Two OutsidersOne Black, the Other JewishForged a Friendship and Made Sports History. New York: Amistad Press, 2004.

arthur r. ashe jr. (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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Gibson, Althea

Gibson, Althea

(b. 25 August 1927 in Silver, South Carolina; d. 28 September 2003 in East Orange, New Jersey), Wimbledon and United States women’s tennis champion (1957 and 1958) who integrated tournament tennis and professional women’s golf.

Gibson was born in a four-room cabin in Silver, South Carolina. She was the oldest of five children born to Daniel Gibson, a cotton farmer, and Annie Bell Washington Gibson, a homemaker. The Gibsons struggled to make ends meet, as South Carolina had suffered a rural depression long before Black Monday, 29 October 1929, when the American stock market crashed. The one-two punch of a drought and an infestation of boll weevils caused cotton production, the general economy, and the Gibson family’s income to plunge.

When Gibson was three her parents sent her to Harlem, New York, to live with her aunt, Sally Washington. As soon as her father received his meager earnings from his last cotton crop, he joined her and the nearly 34,000 others who left South Carolina for Harlem in 1930. He found a job as handyman at a garage and sent for his wife and their new baby. Despite the Depression, Gibson’s parents made sure that she and her four siblings lived well. Gibson had a carefree but restless childhood, marked by truancy and discontent. Her unhappiness with school, however, was offset by early signs of her athletic prowess in such sports as stickball, basketball, and softball. Her family’s apartment building stood on a play street cordoned off by the Police Athletic League (PAL). On a makeshift court in front of her home, Gibson played paddleball—a sport similar to handball except for the fact that paddles, rather than hands, are used for hitting the rubber ball into the serve wall. She played the sport nonstop, vanquishing challengers with her lightning-quick serve. She became the citywide champion of paddleball from 1938 to 1942.

Gibson also began to play paddle tennis, which is more similar to tennis than handball; it features a smaller, spongier racket, a smaller ball, and a smaller court than those of traditional tennis. She outshined competitors in this sport as well. Buddy Walker, the PAL play leader by day and a bandleader by night, thought that if Gibson could win at paddle tennis she could also excel at regular tennis. In the summer of 1941 the tall, lanky young woman that Walker had been praising so impressed the members of Harlem’s Cosmopolitan Tennis Club that a few contributed to pay for her lessons with their one-armed coach, Fred Johnson. A year later Gibson won the 1942 New York State Open Championship and advanced to the finals of the girls’ championship of the American Tennis Association (ATA), the oldest black sports organization in the United States. Gibson won back-to-back girls’ titles in 1944 and 1945. In 1946 Dr. R. Walter Johnson approached her and asked if she’d like to play in the national lawn tennis championship at Forest Hills in New York some day. Known as “Whirlwind” in tennis circles, he believed that Gibson could be the “key to unlock the door” to integrating tournament tennis. Johnson, who was a physician in Lynchburg, Virginia, and Dr. Hubert A. Eaton, a surgeon in Wilmington, North Carolina, offered Gibson a wonderful opportunity: professional training, the use of their private courts, and a college education. Gibson was initially reluctant to accept the offer because she had dropped out of high school after only a year. So the plan was revised to have Gibson move in with Eaton’s family to complete her education in North Carolina and spend summers with Johnson in Virginia.

The same type of machinations that were needed for Jackie Robinson to integrate baseball in 1947 came into play for Gibson, as ATA officials worked feverishly behind the scenes with their white counterparts in the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA). Gibson, who was five feet, eleven inches tall, had speed, reach, and a powerful serve-and-volley game. In the winter of 1949 the ATA informed her that if she applied to compete in the USLTA’s Eastern Indoor Championship, her application would be accepted. Gibson advanced to the quarter-finals, resulting in an invitation to the National Indoor Championship, where she had similar results.

That June, the former dropout graduated tenth in her class at the age of twenty-one from Williston Industrial High School in Wilmington, North Carolina. Two days later she headed to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Florida A&M University) in Tallahassee, Florida. A star forward, she helped the women’s basketball team win a conference title and played on the men’s golf team and the tennis team. In early 1950 the freshman physical education major was invited back to the USLTA Eastern Indoor Championship, which she won. At the national indoor championship, she made it as far as the finals. To Gibson’s surprise, she returned to a hero’s welcome from the school’s president and marching band at the train station.

Despite Gibson’s good showing, the USLTA still had not budged. But change came quickly after the four-time national champion, Alice Marble, wrote an editorial for the July 1950 issue of American Lawn Tennis magazine. In the editorial Marble called her peers “sanctimonious hypocrites” for excluding Gibson from key invitational tournaments. By 28 August, Forest Hills was swarming with photographers and reporters, supporters and hecklers, who witnessed Gibson’s opening day triumphs. Her second-day match was moved to the larger grandstand courts, where she nearly upset Louise Brough, the reigning Wimbledon champion and former national winner.

Gibson graduated from Florida A&M in 1953 and took a teaching position at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. Her USLTA ranking rose to seventh place but fell to thirteenth the following year. After that disappointment, she considered quitting tennis to join the Women’s Army Corps; however, she changed her mind when the State Department invited her on a tennis tour of Asia in 1955. Playing with other outstanding athletes for a solid six weeks improved Gibson’s game and confidence. As her tour stretched to eight months, she won sixteen of eighteen tournaments from Rangoon to London, including her first grand slam title, which she achieved by winning the French Open singles title against Britain’s Angela Mortimer in 1956.

Wimbledon was Gibson’s focus in 1957. This time she competed in only a few grass tournaments and did not defend her French title. Confident that she’d take home the Wimbledon crown, Gibson chose a gown for the ball and wrote her acceptance speech beforehand. “At last! At last!” Gibson exclaimed as she defeated Darlene Hard, 6–3, 6–2. She was officially the Queen of Tennis—the first black champion in Wimbledon’s eighty-year history. Gibson fought back tears as Queen Elizabeth II presented her with the twenty-eight-inch gold salver engraved with the names of past champions. In addition to Gibson’s singles title, she won the doubles title with Hard. Back on U.S. soil, Gibson was honored with a parade through lower Manhattan as ticker tape rained on 100,000 cheering onlookers.

Gibson capped 1957 with a dream come true as she won her first United States national championship, 6–3, 6–2, against Brough. Gibson broke another barrier as the first black player on the U.S. Wightman Cup team, which beat Great Britain 6–1. As she prepared to defend her titles, sports journalists voted her Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year. She was the first black woman to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and she also graced the cover of Time magazine.

Gibson’s return to London in 1958 was a near repeat of the previous year. At Wimbledon she retained her singles crown against Angela Mortimer and teamed with Maria Bueno of Brazil to capture her third consecutive doubles titles, each won with a different partner. Robert F. Wagner, Jr., the mayor of New York City, proclaimed 16 July 1958 as Tennis Day in Gibson’s honor. At Forest Hills, Gibson lobbed Darlene Hard into submission to hold onto her title, 3–6, 6–1, 6–2, despite suffering from a cold and two sprained fingers. After accepting her awards from Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, however, Gibson stunned the crowd by announcing that she planned to retire for at least a year.

During Gibson’s retirement from tennis, she accepted her second Female Athlete of the Year award as well as a minor role in a film, The Horse Soldiers, with John Wayne and William Holden. In early 1959 she went on a goodwill tour of Latin America and the Caribbean; served as a sports correspondent at Wimbledon for the London Evening Standard; and won the women’s singles title at the Pan American Games. She signed a $100,000 contract for a 100-game tour with the Harlem Globetrotters, making her the highest-paid woman in tennis. She rented her first apartment and made a down payment on a ten-room house for her family in Queens, New York. Instead of renewing her contract with the Globetrotters, however, she started her own tour, which failed without the basketball team as an additional attraction.

Having only a professional tennis title, no competition, little money, and few commercial endorsements, she turned to professional golf at the age of thirty-three. Gibson became the first African-American member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) in 1963, after qualifying in three years. The LPGA welcomed its famous new member; however, some sponsors, country clubs, and hotels were not as receptive. The LPGA felt caught in a double bind in its desire to take a stand against bigotry while struggling to survive after being in existence only since 1950. Officials appealed to Gibson for patience as they worked behind the scenes to replace sponsors and change venues for the tour. Unlike the men’s Professional Golf Association (PGA), which had upheld its “Caucasian clause,” banning black golfers as members from 1943 to 1961, the LPGA voted shortly after its formation to exclude such a clause.

Between tournaments, Gibson married William A. Darben, a businessman, in Las Vegas in October of 1965. As she continued to develop her golf game, she noted the debut of open tennis in 1968, which allowed amateurs and professionals to compete for the first time and earn lucrative prizes. Envisioning a comeback, she agreed to participate in the Oakland Pro Invitational in February of 1969. The tournament had been organized by Billie Jean King, a Gibson admirer since childhood. At forty-one, however, Gibson was competing against professional players half her age.

Gibson left the LPGA tour in 1977 after participating in 171 golf tournaments. Although she had been one of the LPGA’s top fifty winners for roughly five years, her lifetime earnings in golf amounted to barely $25,000. She continued a pattern of swinging between golf and tennis with serial comebacks well into her sixties.

After divorcing her first husband in 1976, she married Sydney Llewellyn, the tennis coach under whose guidance she had won at Wimbledon on 11 April 1983. This marriage, however, lasted for only three years. Gibson next became an early advocate of Title IX, which requires federally funded educational institutions to promote gender equality in sports. She thus acted as a champion for education, fitness, and equality. She ran for the New Jersey State Senate and became the first woman and African American to serve as a state athletic commissioner. She served on the Governor’s Council for Physical Fitness until she lost her position due to budget cuts in June 1992.

Gibson died at the age of seventy-six, following complications of respiratory and bladder infections that came on the heels of a heart attack in the summer. She is buried in Rosedale Cemetery in East Orange, New Jersey. Gibson had been reclusive in her later years, preferring to inspire others and be admired from afar as age and depression began to take their toll. “She didn’t get her due,” said Billie Jean King, who added that Gibson might have received greater recognition had her triumphs occurred after the debut of open tennis in 1968. Such was the case for the late Arthur Ashe, who won the U.S. Open in 1968, becoming the second African American to win a grand slam title. Ashe always credited Gibson for paving the way for him and others who came later.

Gibson won a total of eleven grand slam titles and roughly 100 other titles worldwide. It took four decades for another black tennis player to catch up to her back-to-back national and international championships. It is likely that no one will ever break Gibson’s ATA record of winning ten consecutive singles titles. Gibson was pleased to have been a pioneer and leave behind the Newark-based Althea Gibson Foundation as a way to give back what had been given to her—the opportunity to transform one’s life through sports and education.

Gibson’s papers are housed at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library; Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida; and the Althea Gibson Foundation in Newark, New Jersey. Her autobiographies are I Always Wanted to Be Somebody, ed. Ed Fitzgerald (1958), and So Much to Live For, with Richard Curtis (1968). Recent biographies include Frances Clayton Gray and Yanick Rice Lamb, Born to Win: The Authorized Biography of Althea Gibson (2004). Obituaries are in the New York Times (29 Sept. 2003) and the London Guardian (30 Sept. 2003).

Yanick Rice Lamb

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Gibson, Althea

Althea Gibson

Born August 25, 1927, in Silver, SC; died of respiratory failure, September 28, 2003, in East Orange, NJ. Professional tennis player. Althea Gibson broke the color barrier in the world of tennis in the 1950s. She was the first black athlete ever to compete in a United States national championship match, and went on to win both the U.S. women's title and two Wimbledon Cups. An entire generation passed before another African American woman attained such ranks in the sport.

Gibson's path to fame was a remarkable one. Born to South Carolina sharecropper parents in 1927, she grew up in Harlem, the largely African–American section of New York City, where her father found work as a garage attendant. In a stroke of luck, the street on which their tenement apartment building sat on West 143rd Street had been closed off as a designated play area, and volunteers from the Police Athletic League (PAL) set up a paddle tennis court right in front of the building's stoop. Gibson took up the game at the age of nine, and three years later won the city paddle tennis title. Impressed by her natural athleticism, a PAL volunteer brought her to the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club in 1941, which was a local tennis facility open to both blacks and whites.

Gibson improved quickly under her coach at the Cosmopolitan, but was rebellious at home. She often defied her parents by skipping school and even staying out all night, and finally ran away from home. After a stint in a Roman Catholic shelter for teenaged girls, she became a ward of the city and was given a small rent stipend to live on her own. She was forced to take menial jobs to make ends meet but continued with her athletic training, and in 1942 won the first tennis tournament she ever entered. That title, the New York junior women's, was granted by the American Tennis Association (ATA), an organization for black players. At the time, the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USTA) had no minority members.

In 1946, at the age of 19, Gibson was put in contact with two affluent black physicians, who sponsored both her and another promising young tennis player named Arthur Ashe. Gibson moved in with one of the families in North Carolina in order to finish high school, and went on to Florida A&M College. She continued to compete in ATA events, winning ten national championship titles in a row, and her prowess earned her a measure of media attention. There were calls for her to be allowed to enter the USTA's National Grass Court Championships at Forest Hills, New York, which was the precursor to the United States Open. But USTA officials declared that first Gibson must compete in a preliminary event—the catch being that organizers of such an event would have to extend an invitation. When none came, several USTA players rallied to the cause, led by Alice Marble, a former Wimbledon and U.S. Nationals titleholder. Gibson made her debut on the courts of Forest Hills on August 28, 1950. She did well, very nearly unseating the current Wimbledon champion at the time, Louise Brough. The next year Gibson advanced all the way to Wimbledon, the legendary English event, but lost in the quarterfinals. After finishing her Florida A&M degree in 1953, she was able to devote more time to her game, and emerged as a fearsome opponent over the next few years. "The lean and muscular young woman had a dominating serve," noted New York Times writer Robert Mcg. Thomas Jr., "and her long, graceful reach often stunned opponents."

In 1956, Gibson won her first French championship, and the following year won both the singles and doubles titles at Wimbledon. She was feted with a ticker–tape parade in New York City when she returned, and went on to win the U.S. Open that summer as well. Hailed in the press as a pioneering black athlete and inspiration to the civil–rights movement, Gibson was nevertheless wary of being linked to any cause. She won Wimbledon again in 1958 as well as the U.S. singles title, but there was no prize money in the sport at the time. She turned pro soon afterward, playing exhibition matches at the halftime shows of Harlem Globetrotters games.

Gibson served as New Jersey state athletic commissioner until 1992, and recreation director for her town of East Orange. Twice married, she had no children, and suffered a series of financial setbacks in her later years, but supporters rallied to help her once again when her plight became public knowledge. Remarkably, her feat at Wimbledon was not repeated until 1990, when Zina Garrison became the second black woman in history to make it the finals there. Nine years later, American tennis prodigy Serena Williams repeated Gibson's achievement and became the first black woman to win a U.S. Open title in 41 years; in 2000, Serena's sister, Venus, won Wimbledon.

Gibson suffered strokes in her later years and was rarely seen in public after 1990. She died on September 28, 2003, at the age of 76 in an East Orange hospital following treatment for an infection and a respiratory ailment. She is survived by a brother and a sister, as well as by the Foundation bearing her name that she helped establish that provides athletic and educational opportunities to urban youth. Following the news of Gibson's death, Venus Williams released a statement to the media. "I am honored to have followed in such great footsteps," Williams declared, according to Los Angeles Times writer Diane Pucin. "Her accomplishments set the stage for my success, and through players like myself and Serena and many others to come, her legacy will live on."

Sources:

Chicago Tribune, September 29, 2003, sec. 1, p. 1, p. 7; Los Angeles Times, September 29, 2003, p. A1, p. A21; New York Times, September 29, 2003, p. A21, October 2, 2003, p. A2; People, October 13, 2003, p. 94; Washington Post, September 29, 2003, p. A1, p. A6.

CarolBrennan

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Gibson, Althea

GIBSON, Althea

(b. 25 August 1927 in Silver, South Carolina), tennis champion, golf professional, state official, and the first African American to compete in major tennis championships.

Gibson, the eldest of five children of Daniel Gibson and Anna Washington Gibson, sharecroppers, moved with her family from South Carolina to Harlem, New York City, in 1929. She grew up on West 135th Street and was what can only be described as a problem child. She played hooky from school and remembers riding the subways for hours at a time rather than return home to face her parents' wrath. Tall, strong, and athletic, Gibson played paddle tennis on New York City streets before switching to lawn tennis in the 1940s. Recognizing her athletic talent, her father attempted to teach his headstrong daughter how to box. After she knocked him down, he allowed her to pursue her own dreams of tennis.

She won the National Negro girls' championship twice and was tutored by Dr. Robert Johnson of Lynchburg, Virginia. The African-American physician recognized her talent and practically adopted her while training her in the style and etiquette of lawn tennis. She entered Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in 1949 on a tennis scholarship. She played for the school on the tennis and basketball teams and graduated in 1953 with a B.S. degree.

That seemed to be the summit of Gibson's ambitions, as African Americans simply did not play lawn tennis in the first fifty years of the sport. Lawn tennis establishments refused membership and play time to African Americans, who therefore could not obtain the points and ranking needed to play in major championships like Forest Hills and Wimbledon. Even well-meaning white Americans did not understand the pervasive discrimination that prevented African-American athletes from attaining their potential—not until 1950, when Gibson applied to play at the U.S. Championships at Forest Hills.

Gibson was ready for lawn tennis, but lawn tennis was not ready for an African-American player. She was not invited to any event until the former champion Alice Marble wrote a stinging editorial in American Lawn Tennis in July 1950. Marble pointed out that black talent could not be denied, that tennis would eventually open its doors as the U.S. armed forces had recently done. Rather than wait, Marble urged, the tennis establishment should embrace African-American players.

Largely because of Marble's essay, Gibson entered the courts at Forest Hills on 28 August 1950, the first African American to do so. Later Gibson recalled, "There was a terrible thunderstorm during my first match at Forest Hills. One of those eagles [concrete eagles adorning the upper level of the stadium] was struck by lightning. I couldn't believe it. The eagle fell to the ground, and luckily nobody was killed. It may have been an omen that times were changing."

Gibson won her first match in convincing fashion. In the second round she faced Louise Brough, the tournament's third seed. Rain delays spread the match over two days, and though she held a significant lead, Gibson was ultimately defeated. It was a match that showed the importance of battle seasoning; while she was a remarkable athlete, Gibson had not yet fully matured. The following year (1951) she became the first black person to play in the All-England Tennis Championships at Wimbledon.

The maturity and the seasoning took such a long time that around 1955 Gibson was ready to give up on tennis altogether. She was dissuaded from giving up by an invitation to play exhibition matches on a goodwill tour in Southeast Asia. Perhaps because she was away from the United States—and racial pressures—she shone on the tour, defeating all her rivals. So Gibson was back in tennis, but was yet to prove herself ready for the big-time matches—the Grand Slam events.

Gibson's first win in the majors came at Roland Garros in 1956. She won the French Championship, defeating Angela Mortimer, 6–0, 12–10. Gibson was the first African American ever to win one of the "Grand Slam" events, which are the Australian, French, English, and U.S. championships. Considering that Gibson had grown up playing paddle tennis and on hard courts, her win on the soft clay was remarkable and presaged greater things to come.

Gibson lost at the finals of the U.S. National Championship at Forest Hills that autumn, but the coming year, 1957, was to be all hers. She defeated fellow American Darlene Hard at Wimbledon by the lopsided score of 6–3, 6–2. Minutes later came a historic event; Gibson received the Wimbledon Cup from the hand of Queen Elizabeth II. Not only the first African American in tennis, she was now the first to win the All-England Championships.

Glory led to further glory. Gibson was welcomed back to New York City that summer by a ticker-tape parade. This was a huge moment for African-American pride, as had been the success of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American player in baseball's major leagues, a few years earlier. Gibson had broken the color barrier in tennis, and done so with panache.

That September, Gibson won the U.S. National Championship at Forest Hills. She creamed Louise Brough, 6–3, 6–2. Minutes later she received congratulations and the cup from Vice President Richard Nixon. It was another historic moment, one that would not be equaled in intensity until Arthur Ashe won the same tournament in 1968.

Ten days before Gibson won at Forest Hills, she appeared on the cover of Time magazine, perhaps the first African-American woman to achieve that distinction. The accompanying Time article, "That Gibson Girl," chronicled Gibson's long struggle to achieve a place on the court and to mature into the great player she had become. In 1957 Gibson stood among those who publicly represented the pride and dignity of African Americans. Jackie Robinson, who had just retired from baseball, and Marian Anderson, who in 1955 had been the first African American to perform at New York's Metropolitan Opera, were others. Also in 1957 Gibson became the number-one ranked female tennis player in the world and the Associated Press named her the Female Athlete of the Year.

Gibson repeated her successes in 1958. She defeated Angela Mortimer at Wimbledon, 8–6, 6–2, and Darlene Hard at Forest Hills, 3–6, 6–1, 6–2. There was no doubt that after years of poverty, obscurity, and difficulties, Gibson was the number-one player in the world. She was truly tennis queen that year.

Like most players of that time, Gibson turned professional after her triumphs. She went to pro status in 1958 and played exhibition matches before and at intervals between Harlem Globetrotter games. She also found time to appear in a John Wayne movie, The Horse Soldiers (1958).

Life on the professional circuit proved less rewarding psychologically than Gibson's years as an amateur. She retired from tennis rather early and looked for another challenge, which she found in the newly expanding Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA). She entered golf in 1964 and competed in a number of tournaments over the next few years. Her height and arm strength proved an asset, but she had taken up the game too late to make a powerful impact. Even so, she was the first African-American woman to hold an LPGA player card; once again, she led the way.

Gibson married William Darben in 1965 and Sidney Llewellyn in 1983. She retired from golf in 1967 and spent many years as a tennis teacher. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971 and the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame in 1980. Gibson became special consultant to the New Jersey Governor's Council on Physical Fitness and Sport in 1988.

Sadly, circumstances took Gibson down financially. She suffered a stroke in 1995, then two years later her former doubles partner Angela Buxton revealed that the Gibson was financially destitute; medical bills and investments gone sour had ruined her finances. The Althea Gibson Foundation raised approximately $100,000 to rescue Gibson from her plight. In 1999 the Althea Gibson Early Childhood Education Academy opened in East Orange, New Jersey, where she had lived since 1970.

Gibson was a terrific tennis player, a tough competitor, and wonderful role model. At her best, she was among the top dozen women players between 1950 and 2000.

Informative books include Women ' s Tennis: A Historical Documentary of the Players and Their Game, by Angela Lumpkin (1981), and Gibson's own books: I Always Wanted to Be Somebody (1958), edited by Ed Fitzgerald, and So Much to Live For (1968). Relevant articles about Gibson include "That Gibson Girl," Time (26 Aug. 1957); and Ken Kamlet, "Going It Alone," Tennis (Sept. 1999).

Samuel Willard Crompton

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Gibson, Althea

Althea Gibson

8/25/1927–9/23/2003

AMERICAN

PROFESSIONAL TENNIS PLAYER, PROFESSIONAL GOLFER

Althea Gibson is an enduring symbol of the changes that began to be rendered in American sporting culture in the 1950s. Gibson became a focal point in the gradual recognition by mainstream American society that sports was an activity where success was ultimately achieved through talent and not skin color. Gibson's perhaps unintended role as a trailblazer was all the more remarkable due to her rise to prominence in the then most racially segregated of sports, tennis.

Althea Gibson was born in South Carolina; her family moved to New York City in 1930 and it was in New York that Gibson was introduced to tennis. Gibson first played the game at the all black Cosmopolitan Club in Harlem, winning her first tournament at age 15. It was evident from her very first tournament success that the tall and athletic Gibson possessed a remarkable if unrefined game, and she quickly earned a reputation as a tough and sometimes combative player. She moved to North Carolina at age 15 to take advantage of better year round weather for tennis training. Upon her completion of high school, Gibson accepted an athletic scholarship to Florida Agricultural & Mechanical College (now Florida A & M University), at Tallahassee, a historically black educational institution.

An early springboard for Gibson's later professional success was the American Tennis Association, ATA, the oldest all black sports organization in the United States. The ATA was created in 1916 to both provide African American players with access to competitive tournaments, and to act as a counter-weight to the racially exclusionary influences of the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA), the sport's governing body. The USLTA was legally permitted to enforce racial segregation in the structure of its tennis championships, consistent with American law until 1954. Gibson won 10 consecutive ATA national championships beginning in 1947.

Gibson was also influenced in her drive to tennis excellence by "Sugar" Ray Robinson (1921–1989), the prominent world champion boxer who was influential in his own right in the elimination of competitive barriers then in place for many black boxers. Robinson and his wife Edna had spoken to Gibson on a number of occasions prior to her departure to North Carolina, to encourage her in her tennis ambitions.

Gibson attempted to enter the USLTA national championships in 1950. Her application was initially rejected by the USLTA national executive, notwithstanding Gibson's success at a number of high level USLTA regional events. Gibson ultimately played in the United States Open in August 1950, becoming the first African American woman to do so.

When contrasted with meteoric rise to professional stardom and wealth often enjoyed by modern teen age professional tennis players, Althea Gibson's success in the years after 1955 is all the more remarkable as she played no competitive tennis between 1952 and 1955, due to the combined effects of her pursuit of a career in physical education upon her graduation from Florida A & M, coupled with a measure of disillusionment with her tennis game. In most athletes at any elite level of competition, the period between ages 25 and 28 often represents the player's athletic prime. Gibson worked as a university athletic department administrator during these three years.

Under the tutelage of tennis coach Sidney Llewellyn, Gibson rebuilt her game and her confidence in 1955. Gibson developed a formidable serve and volley game, the tennis strategy where the serving player comes immediately to the net to attempt to put pressure on the opponent. Serve and volley tennis has fallen out of favor on a number of modern tennis surfaces, but it remains an effective strategy on grass courts such as England's Wimbledon. Llewellyn and Gibson believed that a serve and volley game was one that allowed Gibson to use her lateral quickness, agility, and her aggressive nature to the fullest advantage. Gibson also added an overpowering second serve to her shot-making arsenal. After participating in a good will tour in Southeast Asia organized by the United States government, Gibson was invited to make her first appearance at Wimbledon in 1956. Although she did not advance at the English championships that year, Gibson won her first ever major tennis title, the French Open, that year.

Gibson became the most dominant player in women's tennis in 1957, when she was the finalist at the Australian Open, followed by the women's singles championship at Wimbledon. Her triumph at the 1957 U.S Open, a feat repeated in 1958, brought Gibson national recognition as the dominant female athlete in America, as she was named Female Athlete of the Year in 1957 and 1958 by a number of news media organizations in both years. Gibson also became the first African American woman to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine.

For all of her undoubted athletic talent, women's tennis in the late 1950s provided virtually no opportunities for a player of Gibson's skill an opportunity to earn a living, as the national championships such as the United States Open and Wimbledon were strictly amateur competitions. Gibson was not able make enough money to support herself through tennis, and she shocked the world tennis community with her retirement from competitive tennis at age 30, in 1958.

It is a further testament to the remarkable athletic talents of Althea Gibson that she then became a professional golfer with comparatively little formal instruction. Although never a dominant player on the women's tour, Gibson played professional golf until 1967. She was the first African American woman to hold a membership in the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA).

With the rise of a bona fide professional tennis circuit in the early 1970s, Gibson attempted a comeback as a professional player in 1971. Gibson's athleticism and tennis skill were not sufficient to overcome the inevitable toll that time had taken on her game, and Gibson found that she could not effectively compete with the younger players at her age of 44.

It is an enduring irony of tennis that Gibson, in many respects was a trailblazer for black tennis stars such as Arthur Ashe, Serena and Venus Williams, all of whom achieved both world wide fame and considerable wealth from a sport in which the sublimely talented Gibson could not earn a living in the late 1950s.

After her retirement from competitive sports, Gibson worked as an athletic commissioner in New Jersey. She was also active in the promotion of physical fitness among young people in that state. A series of strokes debilitated Gibson to the point where she retired from her employment in 1992. Gibson died in 2003 after spending a number of years in poor health.

see also Gender in sports: Female athletes; Golf; Tennis.

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