Originally posted as a Special to ESPN.com, July 9, 2008.
As Venus and Serena Williams reached the 2008 Wimbledon final, many noted the great athletic accomplishments for the sisters, and fewer noted it as another racial milestone in sports. Venus’s fifth singles title is surely remarkable, but it pales in comparison to the trailblazing efforts of Althea Gibson at Wimbledon in 1957.
In 1989, we honored Arthur Ashe when I was director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society. The first thing Ashe said in his acceptance speech at the ceremony was, “I would not have had the chance to do what I have been able to do if Althea Gibson had not blazed the way for me.”
The daughter of a sharecropper, Gibson titled her autobiography, “I Always Wanted to be Somebody.” By the time the book was released in 1958, she definitely wassomebody. By then, she’d won her first Grand Slam event with victories in both the singles and doubles in the French Championships (now the French Open) in 1956. Her doubles partner then was Angela Buxton, who was Jewish. That meant Buxton and Gibson had to confront anti-Semitism and racism, respectively. Still, they repeated their doubles victory at Wimbledon later that year.
Buxton was the first Jewish champion at Wimbledon, and Gibson was the first African-American champion. An English newspaper reported their victory at Wimbledon under the headline “Minorities Win.”
Gibson was to win a great deal more, including singles titles at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships (now the U.S. Open) in 1957 and 1958. In 1957, she earned the No. 1 ranking in the world, and she was named The Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year in 1957 and ’58. She was the first African-American female to win that award.
At age 31, she suddenly retired from amateur tennis in 1958. There was no prize money and there were no endorsement deals for women in that era. There was no pro tour for women, so Gibson could only earn money in exhibition matches.
Growing up impoverished in Harlem, Gibson changed tennis. She became the first African-American tennis star to be hailed internationally during an era when sexism and racism were abundant. The successes of Serena and Venus Williams are so important; but compared to Gibson’s achievements, they are faint knocks on the door at the elite level of tennis.
Hopes were high for other African-American women after Gibson won at Wimbledon, but it took 42 years for the next such champion to emerge, when Venus Williams won the first of her five singles titles there in 2000. Other women of color to win that coveted crown were Australian Yvonne Goolagong Cawley (1971 and 1980), Brazil’s Maria Bueno (1959, 1960 and 1964) and Spain’s Conchita Martinez (1994). Serena Williams won Wimbledon’s women’s singles titles in 2002 and 2003.
Born in 1927 in Silver, S.C., Gibson’s family moved to Harlem in 1930, where they lived on welfare for most of her youth. Developing her early skills from table tennis in public parks, she began to win at that game in Police Athletic Leagues and Parks Department-sponsored tournaments. Musician Buddy Walker gave her the first opportunity to play tennis and helped her to become a member of the Harlem Cosmopolitan Tennis Club, a group of African-American athletes. In 1942, Gibson played and won her first tennis tournament, which was sponsored by the American Tennis Association. Later, she was introduced to a physician from Lynchburg, Va., Dr. Walter Johnson, who mentored her, providing the opportunity to play more and improve her game. Johnson later became an influential person in Ashe’s life.
In 1946, Gibson decided to further pursue her tennis career and moved to Wilmington, N.C., to work under Dr. Hubert A. Eaton while she attended high school. She won the first of her 10 straight ATA women’s singles national championships in 1947.
Her tennis career continued to rise fast while she was a student at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, from where she graduated in 1953.
At the time, tennis was virtually 100 percent segregated. In fact, Gibson didn’t compete against white tennis players for the first time until 1949. In July 1950, Alice Marble wrote an editorial for American Lawn Tennis Magazine in which she said, “Miss Gibson is over a very cunningly wrought barrel, and I can only hope to loosen a few of its staves with one lone opinion. If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, 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.”
Marble said that if Gibson were not given the opportunity to compete, “then there is an uneradicable mark against a game to which I have devoted most of my life, and I would be bitterly ashamed.”
In 1950, Gibson played in the U.S. Championships for the first time.
In 1953, she took part in a U.S. State Department goodwill tennis tour to Southeast Asia. When she returned from the tour, the big victories began to pile up, leading to the 1956 French Championship.
Gibson won 56 singles and doubles titles during her amateur career in the 1950s, and won 10 major titles after the 1956 French Championship. Eventually, she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame, the International Scholar-Athletes Hall of Fame and many others.
After her retirement from amateur tennis, she released a record album, “Althea Gibson Sings,” and later, she appeared in the film “The Horse Soldiers.” Her “pro” tennis career included a tour with the Harlem Globetrotters, playing exhibition tennis. Reportedly, she made $100,000 in matches before the Globetrotters games. In 1964, Gibson began playing professional golf on the LPGA tour.
In 1971 at the age of 44, she tried a comeback in professional tennis, but was far past her prime and could not compete with the younger players.
In 1975, Gibson was named the manager of the East Orange, N.J., Department of Recreation, a position she held for 10 years. She was also the New Jersey state commissioner of athletics from 1975 to 1985, and she served on the state’s Athletics Control Board until 1988 and on the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness until 1992, when she retired.
Gibson began experiencing health problems in the 1990s and suffered a stroke in 1992. She also had two cerebral aneurysms. These health problems caused a significant financial burden on her, and she became a recluse, rarely seeing people or being seen in public. Again living on welfare, Gibson was unable to pay for her medical or living costs. Eventually, Gibson called her old doubles partner, Buxton, and told her she’d been contemplating suicide. Without informing Gibson, Buxton arranged for a letter requesting support to appear in a tennis magazine. Nearly $1 million poured in from around the world.
Gibson died on Sept. 28, 2003, at the age of 76. I attended the funerals of both Ashe and Gibson. Ashe, who hailed her as his champion and role model, drew thousands from across the globe to his funeral in Richmond, Va. Perhaps because she’d been a recluse for nearly a decade, the crowd that came to Gibson’s services numbered in the hundreds but did not quite fill the Trinity and St. Philip’s Cathedral in Newark, N.J.
Alan Schwartz, the president of the United States Tennis Association, told those who gathered there, “She simply changed the landscape of tennis. … Gibson was no less a trailblazer than baseball great Jackie Robinson or tennis champion Arthur Ashe, although she received less recognition for her accomplishments. Arthur Ashe’s job was not easy; but if he had to climb a hill, Althea Gibson had to climb a mountain. She was the original breakthrough person.”
Zina Garrison, the next African-American woman after Gibson to reach the Wimbledon final (she lost to Martina Navratilova in 1990), eulogized Gibson, too.
“Althea used to say she wanted me to be the one who broke her barrier, to take the burden off of her [as the only black woman to have won Wimbledon],” Garrison said. “She showed me the stall where she dressed and where she popped the champagne when she won. She knew she opened the door for all of us, and she was so excited about all the women who followed her.”
After Gibson passed away, Venus Williams released a statement honoring her role model: “I am grateful to Althea Gibson for having the strength and courage to break through the racial barriers in tennis. Althea Gibson was the first African-American woman to rank number one and win Wimbledon, and I am honored to have followed in such great footsteps.”
I surmise that Gibson was there in spirit Saturday when Venus won her fifth Wimbledon title.
Her legacy is being carried on by the Althea Gibson Foundation, which was founded “for the primary purpose of identifying, encouraging and providing financial support for urban youth who wish to develop their skills and talents in the sports of tennis or golf, and have decided to pursue a career as a student athlete at the post-secondary level. The Foundation will continue her work to encourage young people to utilize sports to help improve upon the social condition of urban America and to promote global unity.”
Gibson once said, “I hope that I have accomplished just one thing: that I have been a credit to tennis and my country.”
She was a credit to all of humanity. And she blazed the trail for the Williams sisters.
About the Author: Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 13 books, Lapchick also directs UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.