Article: Althea Gibson & her legacy seem to have been forgotten
She was the first black woman to win Wimbledon and U.S. national titles, but well before her death last September, Althea Gibson and her legacy seem to have been ...
By PATRICK OBLEY
April 18, 2004
Long before Althea Gibson died, she vanished.
Long before she was remembered, Gibson was forgotten.
Upon Gibson’s death in September, Billie Jean King said Venus Williams reminded her most of Gibson.
Ask Williams what she knows about Gibson...
“Probably not as much as I should," she said.
“I didn’t know her that well. She was really a private person. Growing up, I grew up knowing Zina (Garrison) and Lori (McNeil).
“It’s important just to recognize the heritage and history of the sport, no matter what race or color anyone is. But everybody loves and appreciates what she achieved and what she stood for.”
Almost everyone has heard Gibson's name. Few understand her impact on blacks and women in sports. Arthur Ashe's name is mentioned most when black pioneers in tennis are discussed. Gibson, however, blazed the trail nearly a generation earlier.
However, Gibson spent her final two decadesas a recluse. Even she failed to understand her place in history, said Fran Gray, Gibson’s best friend.
“People said she died of a heart attack or a stroke,” she said. “Truth is, she died from depression.”
“I don't want to be put on a pedestal. I just want to be reasonably successful and live a normal life with all the conveniences to make it so. I think I've already got the main thing I've always wanted, which is to be somebody, to have identity.” — Gibson
With each stride Williams made early in her career, questions about Gibson followed. When she won Wimbledon, becoming the first black player to do so since Gibson, she was disappointed that some of the questions were on that theme.
“My realization at that time was, ‘Gosh, I’m going to win!’” she said. “I was in a totally different mindframe.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s wonderful to be inspired by those you play with and those who came before you, but I’m just heavily into me when I’m out there on the court.”
Serena Williams echoed her sister.
“To be honest, I can’t say I do feel that,” she said of the pressure of following Gibson. “I’m going out there and playing for my generation. She was someone I really looked up to and admired, but I can’t think about that when I’m playing a match. I’ve got to think about bending my knees.”
The Williams family’s skepticism about the sincerity regarding gestures of racial goodwill came to the fore this week when the Family Circle Tennis Center named its club court in honor of Gibson. All the right things were said, but beneath the smiles were questions.
Why name the club court instead of the stadium court?
Why not the complex?
“Why here, why now?” Richard Williams said. “It makes you wonder, doesn’t it.”
In Charleston, the news of the day wasn’t that gesture, but the continuing weeklong ceremonies leading to the funeral of the H.L. Hunley civil war submarine crew dominated the headlines.
The gesture was dwarfed in the sports world as well; it fell on baseball’s Jackie Robinson day.
“I'm Althea Gibson, the tennis champion. I hope it makes me happy.” — Gibson
In 1979 at the Sportsmen’s Tennis Club in Boston Leslie Allen, Zina Garrison, Andrea Buchanan and Kim Sands were invited to spend a week with Gibson.
That time changed Allen’s career. She rose from anonymity in 1979 to her highest ranking, No. 17, in 1981.
“Althea was always a beacon out there ...,” Allen said. “She had been to the pinnacle of the game, been the Wimbledon champion ... If there was ever any underlying question if women of color could win the sport, she answered it.
“She changed my style (of play), and she was a role model for players like Billie Jean King, too, because tennis up until her time was very much a baseline game.”
At every turn during her career, Allen was compared to Gibson.
“It bothered me at first,” she said. “For the bulk of my career, I was always referred to as the first African-American since Althea Gibson to win a tournament. Was it because there wasn’t another tennis player in the world to compare me to or is it because I’m black?
“Once I stepped away from the game and had time to think about it, it was an honor to be put in the same sentence.”
In 1990, Garrison became the first black women’s player to play in a Wimbledon final since Gibson’s back-to-back victories in 1957-58.
By then health problems had begun their assault on Gibson. She had long since exiled herself to her spartan apartment in New Jersey and become known as a recluse.
So, when Gibson visited Garrison shortly before she took the court against Martina Navratilova in the 1990 final, it shook Garrison to the core.
Allen was working as a media relations director for the tour at that time. When she learned Gibson was going to visit, Allen raced to the lockerroom to prepare Garrison.
“I just told her, player to player, that Althea was going to be here,” Allen said. “I said, ‘You may feel pressure, but don’t let that get to you. You get ready for Martina.”
Garrison did just that — until Gibson arrived.
She came in through the player’s entrance to the stadium court. She had been out on the lawn, drinking in the sights, recalling the memories of her multiple Wimbledon titles in the 1950’s.
Gibson smiled at Garrison and then spoke: “I looked out on centercourt, and I can still see my footprints in the grass.”
“She was just saying it in an endearing way,” Allen said. “She understood the largeness of her legacy.”
Garrison melted under the withering heat of Gibson’s statement. She gathered herself, but was no match for Navratilova. Garrison fell, 6-4, 6-1.
Not until Venus Williams won in 2000 did the drought end.
Gibson was happy for Williams, but by then, she was locked in a depression.
She wanted to do more, but, friends said, her failing health and poor self-esteem had built an impervious wall.
Through Gray, Gibson established the Althea Gibson Foundation in 1998.
“The Arthur Ashes and Leslie Allens were not going to be found in the African-American community on a regular basis without help,” Gray said. “Althea’s mandate to me was to find a kid, a talented kid, and do what I could to push the kid through the system.”
Gibson received such help while growing up in Harlem, N.Y. She had been sent there in 1930 at the age of 3 to live with relatives when her parents realized there were few opportunities in depression-wracked Silver.
Discovered by the American Tennis Association as a teenage high school dropout, the ATA arranged for Dr. Hubert Eaton of Wilmington, N.C., to mentor her. She returned to high school and graduated with an A-plus average in 1949.
In the meantime, she had polished her game to a level that eclipsed anyone on the ATA circuit, the black equivalent to the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association.
In 1950, the ATA petitioned the USLTA to allow Gibson, the defending two-time ATA champion, to play in the U.S. Nationals, the forerunner of the U.S. Open.
Alice Marble, a four-time U.S. National winner, supported Gibson's bid to play in the July 1950 issue of American Lawn Tennis magazine.
“If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of players, then it’s only fair that they meet this challenge on the court,” Marble wrote.
In that year’s U.S. Nationals, she defeated Barbara Knapp in straight sets. In her second match against three-time defending Wimbledon champion Louis Brough, she lost the first set 6-1, but rallied to win the second set 6-3 and lead the third, 7-6. A thunderstorm forced the match to be delayed until the following day. When it resumed, Brough won the next three games to win the match.
During the next year, it became clear that as good as Gibson was she wasn’t ready for the game’s highest echelon. She needed more work, but couldn’t find the necessary competition. When she entered USLTA tournaments, they sometimes were canceled due to what organizers called a lack of players or interest.
When she played, she was called for faults that seldom were called against white players.
“I don’t even think Venus or Serena Williams could be called for 15 foot faults during a match and still win,” Gray said. “That happened to Althea a lot.”
So, Gibson was at yet another crossroad. She already had been old for a tennis player when she made her U.S. Nationals debut at age 23. Now, she decided that playing on the Asian and European tours could provide the competition — and space — she needed to grow.
The decision paid off.
Return to prominence
“If I made it, it's half because I was game enough to take a lot of punishment along the way and half because there were a lot of people who cared enough to help me.” — Gibson
Gibson resurfaced in big-time women’s tennis in 1956 with a dominating run through the French Championships (today’s French Open). She also won the French and Wimbledon doubles title with Englishwoman Angela Buxton.
In 1957, approaching her 30th birthday, she won Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals. She defended her titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals in 1958. During her run, Gibson won 11 Grand Slam titles, including five singles crowns.
"She should have been able to leverage that into something more," Allen said.
But ... she was black.
After winning her first Wimbledon title, she was invited to a hotel for a party in her honor.
“She was told she could go to the party,” said ATA executive secretary Sallie Elam. “But she was told she couldn’t stay in the hotel. Can you imagine that?”
Other hotels refused any party or luncheon in her honor.
“I tried to feel responsibilities to Negroes, but that was a burden on my shoulders,” Gibson said in 1957 after one such insulting encounter. “Now I’m playing tennis to please me, not them.”
Years later, as she lived in her Essex, N.J., apartment, that statement would haunt her.
“I guess when she looked at her life, all she had done, it wasn’t satisfying to her,” Gray said. “She was a hard taskmaster on herself.”
She died on Sept. 28, 2003, at the age of 76, not knowing what her legacy would be.
“No matter what accomplishments you make, somebody helped you.” — Gibson
Silver doesn’t appear on most maps. The Clarendon County hamlet is little more than a speed bump on S.C. Highway 15 between Sumter and Summerton.
Clarendon is one of the poorest counties in a poor state. Of its 32,502 people, 65.3 percent are high school graduates and 23.1 percent live below the poverty line.
The per capita income is $13,998. Of the county’s children, only 11.4 percent graduate from college.
In this environment, Manning High School tennis coach Kay Young is searching for the next Althea Gibson.
“It took me some time to make it clear that tennis was not just for the white person,” Young said. “But we just don’t have much of anything. The YMCA in Sumter supposedly supports us, but it’s 20 or 25 miles away. The recreation department has some programs, but it’s small and this county is really, really poor.”
Manning High’s tennis courts were re-named in Althea Gibson’s honor recently. They are the only courts in the county that are maintained regularly.
Some of the kids on the Manning boys tennis team don’t own rackets. As many as three play with one of Young’s former rackets. One plays with her daughter’s racket.
Former U.S. Professional Tennis Association president Jack Justice recently moved to the area and is offering instruction and clinics, but “a lot of kids still can’t afford the $30 per hour for private lessons,” Young said. “It’s just not a cheap sport.”
Young does what she can. She takes players to nearby college matches. She occasionally brings a few players to the Family Circle Cup. The Althea Gibson Foundation pledged to help Clarendon County’s tennis efforts, but details are still being worked out.
When Serena Williams learned of the obstacles facing South Carolina’s youth, she opened her checkbook.
“It’s very important for me” she said. “I’ve wanted to do something for a long time. I donate money. I give out scholarships. Tennis opens so many doors and leads to so many bright futures.”
Allen’s Win4Life Foundation also has established programs in South Carolina.
“Tennis is more than just hitting a ball,” Allen said. “My foundation is about the four ‘D’s’ — desire, dedication, discipline and determination — through tennis. Those four ‘D’s’ are a path to succeed in life, develop strong life skills and gain insight.”
“I always wanted to be somebody.” — Gibson
Tennis’ first black player shrank from the public spotlight more than 20 years ago because her body was breaking down. She grew weary of answering the same questions about her breakthrough in tennis and later, her second great breakthrough as the first black woman on the LPGA tour.
Black, black, black. It seemed the stereotypes would never fade — the questions would never stop.
She was poor and lived on generous donations from other former players. She had made no money while winning her 11 Grand Slam titles. During her prime years, tennis was not a money sport. In fact, the most money she made playing tennis came during a 118-date tour playing tennis exhibitions as an opening act for the Harlem Globetrotters.
Perhaps she could have increased her visibility and thus, her bank account, if she had granted more interviews during her later years, but she refused.
“She didn’t want to do any more interviews because she was afraid of being asked about something she couldn’t remember,” Gray said. “You’ve got to remember, when she was in her prime, there was no TV for women’s tennis. Not one of her big matches was filmed from beginning to end.
“She was always afraid if she was asked a question she couldn’t answer, they’d say she’s senile. If they saw her when she was weak and frail, they’d call her a ‘poor dear.’ She didn’t want to be a ‘poor dear.’
“She wanted to live out the rest of her days with dignity.”
But what of her legacy?
In death, perhaps her contributions will come into lasting focus.
Gray is in the final stages of correcting the first draft of a Gibson biography she titled “Born to Win: The Authorized Biography of Althea Gibson.”
It is to be released in August.
“It’s important for the younger generation to know what she faced, for them to know that the water at the colored drinking fountain was warm,” she said. “It’s important to talk about the environment in which she had to win.
“I want her to have a position in the 21st century and not just because she played tennis; she did more than that.
“She must always have a position in history,” Gray said, “A place no one can overtake.”