Althea Gibson basked in a ticker-tape parade in New York a decade before Arthur Ashe won the 1968 US Open.
Gibson won 11 majors in three years from 1956-58, including the French Open, Wimbledon and US Open singles titles. She integrated two sports – tennis and golf – during an era of racial segregation in the United States.
“She’s our Jackie Robinson of tennis,” said Billie Jean King, who at 13 watched Gibson play. “I saw what it meant to be the best.”
One Love Tennis is an athletic and educational programme for youth in Wilmington, North Carolina. During a rainy day in 2017, the girls watched the documentary Althea and Arthur. They learned Ashe has a stadium named after him at the US Open on the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York.
The mood in the room grew sombre afterwards, according to programme director Lenny Simpson. The girls realised there wasn’t even a “dag-gone hot dog stand” named for Gibson.
Why wasn’t there a monument to the first African American to win a major title (1956 French Open) before winning both the US Nationals (precursor to the US Open) and Wimbledon in 1957-58?
Simpson suggested the girls be part of the solution by writing letters to his friend and then-US Tennis Association president Katrina Adams. King and Adams had been working on the Gibson project for years. King’s advocacy before the USTA board resulted in a unanimous vote. Adams later read letters to the board from the girls, including Xerra Robinson, to reinforce the importance of a tribute.
“I know she would be proud to see the progress that’s been made with so many women of colour leading the pack in professional tennis,” Adams said of Gibson, who died in 2003 at 76. “Her bravery, perseverance and determination paved the way.”
Today, the USTA will unveil a statue in her honour at the US Open. The girls and boys of One Love Tennis will attend the ceremony, along with Gibson’s 85-year-old doubles partner, Angela Buxton of Britain.
“It’s about bloody time,” said Buxton, who won the 1956 French and Wimbledon titles with her friend.
Gibson, who made the covers of Time and Sports Illustrated and was voted Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year in 1957-58, travelled the hard road from Harlem to Wimbledon, but she had a community of support. The oldest of five children, Gibson was born in Silver, South Carolina, before her sharecropper parents relocated to Harlem. At 18, Gibson moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, to live with Dr Hubert and Celeste Eaton. She honed her tennis and social skills on Dr Eaton’s court at his home, called “the black country club” because African Americans couldn’t play at public courts or white country clubs.
“Culturally, it was a tough adjustment,” said Simpson, who met his coach and mentor on that court at age five when Gibson gave him a racket and called him “champ.” “[In Harlem], she didn’t see the signs of white and coloured water fountains and white and coloured bathrooms. The prejudice and discrimination certainly was there, but nothing like the Jim Crow days of the South.”
She spent summers in Lynchburg, Virginia, training on the court of Dr Robert Walter Johnson, who later nurtured Ashe, a winner of five Grand Slam titles. Both were forced to play in segregated tournaments early in their careers. Barred by the precursor of the USTA, Gibson won ten straight American Tennis Association women’s titles starting in 1947.
After lobbying by the ATA and a withering editorial by four-time champion Alice Marble, Gibson became the first African American to compete in the 1950 US Nationals at Forest Hills on her 23rd birthday. A graduate of Florida A&M, Gibson taught physical education and considered quitting tennis because she couldn’t make a living in the low-paying amateur days. But in 1955, she was tapped by the State Department for a goodwill tennis tour of Asia. That’s how she met Buxton in India.
Both were looking for a doubles partner in 1956. Buxton was denied membership at the club in London where she practised after she listed Jewish for religion on the application. She grew up in England and South Africa and understood Gibson’s struggle.
“No one spoke to her, let alone played with her,” Buxton said. “[Her playing style] was like a young man. She wore little shorts, a vest and hit the ball hard, even her second serve. She came charging up to the net. She bamboozled people with her attitude.”
They won at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, but the “powers that be” were not thrilled and “you needed a spy glass to see the headline ‘Minorities Win’,” Buxton said. Both were denied membership at the All England Club despite being Wimbledon champions. (Buxton is still waiting).
Nonetheless, Gibson got the royal treatment with a ticker-tape parade in July in New York after receiving the 1957 Wimbledon trophy from Queen Elizabeth II. Two months later, she won the US Nationals at Forest Hills. “That was an incredible joy for her,” Simpson said.
She duplicated those feats and retired from tennis at No 1 in 1958 – a winner of more than 50 singles and doubles titles – because there was no significant prize money until the professional era began in 1968. The men’s and women’s US Open winners over the next fortnight will each receive a cheque for $3.8 million. No other African American woman won the US Open until Serena Williams in 1999 or Wimbledon until Venus Williams in 2000.
After her tennis career was over Gibson played exhibition matches before Harlem Globetrotters games, signing a $100,000 contract, and joined the LPGA full-time in 1964.
In 1975, she became state commissioner of athletics in New Jersey. She served on the state athletics control board, and the governor’s council on physical fitness until 1992.
The twice-divorced Gibson’s health failed in her late 60s after a stroke and she struggled to make ends meet. Buxton said Gibson reached out to a handful of tennis friends without much success. Gibson was on the verge of suicide in 1995 when the tennis great called her, she said. Buxton provided financial support and visited her friend in East Orange, New Jersey.
“Angela Buxton saved her life, literally,” Simpson said. Buxton also wrote a letter to Tennis Week magazine, and donations flooded in from all over the world. The WTA currently has a hardship fund to help former players.
Frances Gray, a long-time friend and co-founder of the Althea Gibson Foundation, has kept her legacy alive. A self-described “born athlete”, Gibson said she wanted to be remembered as “strong and tough and quick”.
“If not for Althea Gibson, there would be no Arthur Ashe, no Serena and Venus, Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens and the list goes on,” Simpson said. “She opened it up for all of us.”