Althea Gibson died on September 28, 2003.
Many people reading this will shake their heads in confusion, unaware of who this woman was and what she accomplished. Others will know, and perhaps spend a moment in respectful silence, acknowledging, perhaps mourning, the passing of a true lady and a legend.
In the late 1930s, a young black girl in Harlem was growing up on welfare. She was a troublemaker in school and a chronic runaway. She was headed nowhere until she discovered table tennis at the public recreation department. From her interest in this game, she moved on toward court tennis. By 1942, Althea Gibson had won a state championship in the American Tennis Association, an all black tennis organization. She repeated this victory in 1944 and 1945.
Her excellence caught the attention of a southern businessman who welcomed her into his family home and helped her to gain a high school diploma as well as providing private tennis instruction on his grass court. She graduated Florida A&M University in 1953.
From 1947 to 1956, Althea Gibson won the ATA women’s singles tourney every year. Because she was black and this was the Jim Crow era, she was not permitted to enter other tennis tournaments, until a white player wrote an article that pointed out that one of America’s greatest tennis players was unable to compete due to racism. "If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of players, then it’s only fair that they meet this challenge on the courts," the article stated. The Forest Hills championship opened its doors and permitted Althea to compete in 1950. She was the first black person of either gender to be allowed to compete at Forest Hills. In 1951 she shattered racial barriers again, when was invited to Wimbledon.
Through the early 1950s, Althea competed in many prestigious tennis competitions, winning a few minor titles. In 1957, with style, grace, and superb athleticism, Althea Gibson returned home from Wimbledon with both the women’s singles and doubles titles under her belt. New York City threw her a ticker tape parade and gave her the key to the city. A year later, she repeated her victories at Wimbledon.
Even while taking home Wimbledon and French Open titles, Althea faced racism, both on and off the court. She would arrive at a hotel only to have her reservation canceled when the desk clerk saw the color of her skin.
By all accounts, Althea Gibson took the racism in stride, never showing anger or disappointment, although it must have hurt her deeply. She held her head up high and didn’t let anything cause her to lose her dignity and self-respect. She was strong, she was a woman, she was a lady.
I was born in the early part of the 1960s, and although I am white, I grew up in a black ghetto in Boston. Althea Gibson was a major role model for the kids in my neighborhood. Mothers would tell their children "If you work hard, you could be as good at something as Althea is at tennis." Some of those kids no doubt benefitted from the example set by Althea Gibson.
Althea never saw herself as a pioneer, but the simple fact of the matter is that she was. In the face of extreme prejudice, she pulled down barriers that were nearly insurmountable, paving the way for black tennis players such as Arthur Ashe and Venus and Serena Williams.
Althea once said "I tried to feel responsibilities to Negroes, but that was a burden on my shoulders. Now I’m playing tennis to please me, not them." The fact is, that she did please them, and her accomplishments helped raise a sense of community worth in a segment of our society that was downtrodden and in need of a star to wish on.
God bless you, Althea.