Althea Gibson

 

Even those with little interest in sports generally recognize the names of such great athletes as Tiger Woods, Venus and Serena Williams, and Arthur Ashe. But those who follow tennis and golf more closely know the name of Althea Gibson, an athlete who broke many barriers and made it possible for other African-Americans to follow in her footsteps.

 

She was born in Silver in Clarendon County on August 25, 1927*, the eldest of five children of a sharecropper. At the age of three, Gibson moved north with her family to Harlem, NY. As she grew up living in a rough neighborhood, she sometimes got into fights with other children, both boys and girls.  Tall and athletically built, she was able to hold her own (Gibson, 10-14).  The young girl loved sports, especially basketball, but as she noted in her autobiography, “…any kind of ball would do” (Gibson, 9). In an era when professional sports were closed to African-Americans, Gibson grew up playing paddleball on the streets of New York through a Police Athletic League program. Paddleball is similar to tennis but players use a different kind of racket and play on a smaller court. By the time she was 12, she was winning citywide championships (Ballard).

 

Gibson did not like school and skipped it as often as possible. Her father’s whippings had little impact. She preferred to be outdoors doing something more active. In 1941 she finished junior high and began attending the Yorkville Trade School, where she learned to sew. She had little interest in academics. Her friends were all at a different high school, and she began to skip classes and even stay out all night (Gibson, 18-19).  She soon dropped out of high school altogether. Exasperated school officials agreed to let her work despite her young age, and she held a variety of jobs over the next few years. Eventually she lost her job and found herself enjoying her unemployment. The Welfare Department gave her a choice. She could go to a reformatory or she could live in some family’s home, report to them every week, and even receive some money while she did a job search. The choice was no contest, of course. The Welfare Department placed her in a private home, and she found herself with time on her hands and a little bit of cash (Gibson, 22-25). During this period Gibson began to take tennis lessons and learn the game, while living on welfare and collecting a weekly allowance.

 

Gibson was a good all around athlete, a tomboy in the parlance of the day. It had not taken long for others to recognize her athletic abilities. Paddleball led to tennis. Blues musician Buddy Walker, who worked for the city’s recreation program during the summer to supplement his income, spotted her. He thought she would be a good tennis player and encouraged her to try the game. Gibson recounted that her first time out she played so well that she attracted an audience from among the other players, including a teacher, Juan Serrell. Serrell belonged to the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club, where upper-class African-Americans played.  He introduced her to the club’s tennis coach, Fred Johnson. The club members thought she had so much potential that they purchased a membership for her. In the summer of 1941, she began to take lessons at the Cosmopolitan Club. Although he only had one arm, Johnson taught the young teen how to play the game. Gibson found the hardest part of tennis was accepting the culture. Seeing how one should dress in tennis whites and behave politely while playing as hard as possible in order to win was difficult for her (Gibson, 27-30). She began to play as an amateur in 1942, winning a tournament at the age of 15 and becoming the New York State African-American girls’ singles champion. She played tennis under the auspices of the American Tennis Association (ATA), the organization for black players. In 1943 the organization did not hold a national tournament, but Gibson was the girls’ singles champion in 1944 and 1945. Cosmopolitan Club members paid her expenses so that she could travel to these events (Gibson, 31-33).

 

In 1945 Gibson turned 18 and was no longer eligible for welfare benefits. She would have to become gainfully employed. She moved in with a friend’s family and obtained a job as a waitress to support herself, playing basketball and bowling for fun in her spare time. Her friend, Gloria Nightingale, introduced her to boxer Sugar Ray Robinson and his wife Edna, who became friends (Gibson, 34-36). Sugar Ray, along with a number of Harlem businessmen, would later provide her with financial support so that she could travel to tennis tournaments. Since she was 18, Gibson had now moved from the girls to the women’s level in tennis competitions. The ATA provided financial help so that she could play in the women’s tournament in Ohio in 1946. Gibson reached the finals, but lost the tournament. But two very special people who would have a great influence on her life saw her play there (Gibson, 36-37).

 

The world probably would never have heard of Althea Gibson if not for Dr. Hubert Eaton and Dr. Walter Johnson, two African-American physicians who loved tennis and helped many young African-Americans who wanted to play the game. They wanted Gibson to go to college and play tennis, but she was a high school dropout (Gibson, 37). The two men persuaded the 18 year old to move to Wilmington, NC and to attend high school there. In Wilmington she lived at Dr. Eaton’s home with his family during the school year. He coached her and taught her tennis etiquette. She lived in Lynchburg, Virginia with Dr. Johnson’s family during the summers, and played tennis through the American Tennis Association, traveling to tournaments with Dr. Johnson. The two men paid all of her expenses during this period. All of this took some adjustment. Gibson had to learn to live with a middle class family and to obey their rules. She also had to adjust to living in the segregated South, and to the humiliation of having to ride in the back of a bus or sit in the balcony at a movie theater. It was degrading, but she later noted that her fears that the whole experience would be a “Ku Klux Klan nightmare” were never realized (Gibson, 41-47). Although all Gibson ever wanted was the opportunity to achieve what she could as an individual, she had firsthand knowledge of the discrimination facing African-Americans in American society.

 

Gibson had made up her mind to finish high school, so she studied and managed to complete her degree in three years, graduating near the top of her class. However, she never did really fit in with the other students, perhaps because she was older, perhaps because she had grown up in the North, or perhaps because she preferred to play sports. She became the captain of the girls’ basketball team, and played football and baseball with the boys as often as she could. She also joined the school marching band, playing on a saxophone that Sugar Ray Robinson had purchased for her several years earlier. The school had no tennis team, so she had to play at home on Dr. Eaton’s tennis court (Gibson, 48-51; 57).

 

American Tennis Association (ATA) events were mostly self-contained in the 1940s and 1950s, and those who were present mostly kept to themselves. Virginia Glass, a former ATA president, noted in an interview that the tournaments were held on the campuses of traditionally black colleges. ATA tournaments included a range of social events for the participants, such as parties, card games, and even a fashion show. Gibson’s warm-up partner, Billy Davis, remembered her outstanding serve and volley game, stating “She just dominated everyone she played” (“Playing Tennis”).  Her first summer with Dr. Johnson, Gibson won singles championships in all nine of the tournaments she entered, as well as eight mixed doubles championships while partnered with Dr. Johnson. Her biggest prize was the ATA women’s singles national title, which she would win for ten years straight beginning in 1947. Gibson’s self-assessment was quite accurate: “I was the best woman player in Negro tennis” (Gibson, 48-51). Gibson herself credited the ATA for giving her the opportunity to succeed, saying in its yearbook: “That first break for me came when the ATA took an interest in me…” (“Playing Tennis”).

 

By now Gibson wanted to go to college. She applied to a number of traditionally black colleges, hoping that her success in the tennis world would earn her a scholarship. Florida A & M in Tallahassee awarded the young athlete a tennis and basketball scholarship. She entered the college at the age of 22, graduating three years later in 1953 (“Playing Tennis;” Hajela; Spear; “Transition;” “This Week in Black History,” July 6, 1998; “This Week in Black History,” July 28, 2003; Gibson).  Although older than the other students, she pledged a sorority and enjoyed college life. During this period, she continued to play in ATA events and to win. She was also beginning to get her foot in the door and play in events in the white tennis world, playing in the Eastern Indoor Championships and the National Indoors Championship in 1949. By doing so she became the second African-American and the first African-American woman to play in the latter event. But she did not win either of these US Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) events, nor did her success through the quarter-final level immediately open any doors for her. While her fellow players were more than cordial, the powers in the tennis world were still reluctant to include her. Although she hoped for an invitation to the major outdoor tournaments, none were forthcoming. However, the press was beginning to notice, and they were asking why Althea Gibson was excluded (Gibson, 55; 60-62).

 

By the 1950s the white sports world was beginning to open its doors to black athletes. Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby had integrated professional baseball in 1947. The USLTA had also been forced to crack the door open in 1947 when Oscar Johnson, the ATA junior champion, indicated that he would sue in court if they did not allow him to play in the national indoor juniors tournament. He lost that year, but won the tournament in 1948. Dr. Johnson and Dr. Eaton had been pressuring the USLTA to allow Althea to play in their tournaments. Public opinion was beginning to shift in favor of allowing black athletes to play on the traditionally white circuits.

 

 In July of 1950, American Lawn Tennis Magazine published an editorial by tennis champ Alice Marble, urging the tennis world to give Althea Gibson the opportunity to play in its tournaments. Some years earlier, Gibson had seen Marble play and admired her skill. Now she had another reason to admire her. Although Marble’s editorial stirred the pot, Gibson was turned down when she requested an invitation to a USLTA sanctioned state tournament in New Jersey. But perhaps as a result of Marble’s editorial, Gibson soon had the opportunity to play in the Eastern Grass Court Championships, a major tournament. If she played well, she would be invited to the US National at Forest Hills, NY. Gibson lost in the second round. Next, she played in the National Clay Courts Championships, where she reached the quarter-finals (Gibson, 66-67). The USLTA then invited Althea Gibson to play in the 1950 US National, the US Open. Later, Gibson wrote of the pressure and the stress of playing on such hallowed ground. Despite the media attention, Gibson had to play on the court that was furthest from the clubhouse and with the fewest seats in the gallery. It was never clear if this was deliberate discrimination or simply chance. After all, movie star Ginger Rogers, who was playing mixed doubles and was certainly a bigger draw if not a serious tennis contender, had the prime spot, a court by the clubhouse (Gibson, 71). Gibson was defeated in the second round of the tournament (“Grand Slam”).  But Althea Gibson would take her place in history, along with other African-Americans who were “first” to break down a barrier. And she would go on to win major tournaments.

 

In 1950, Gibson thus became the first African-American to play tennis at the US Nationals at Forest Hills, NY. In 1951 she became the first African-American to play at Wimbledon in England. She had begun her climb to the top of the tennis world. Gibson would ultimately win a total of 56 tournaments in her tennis career, including five Grand Slam singles titles (Hajela).

 

Success would come slowly to Althea Gibson. In the early 1950s, she continued to win the ATA tournaments, but did not do well in USLTA events. Ranked number 9 in 1952 and number 7 in 1953, her ranking dropped to 13 in 1954. Gibson continued to work on her game. At the suggestion of Sydney Llewellyn, a Harlem tennis instructor, she changed her swing and spent hours practicing on the court, but did not immediately achieve the hoped for results.

 

It is impossible to know whether Gibson failed to win these early tournaments because she did not play as well as other competitors, or whether she was at least in part, a victim of discrimination. As an African-American, Gibson had to face prejudice on as well as off the court. When she played in USLTA-sanctioned events, referees called her for her mistakes, or faults, while letting the white players get by. Sometimes when she was scheduled to play in an event, it would be cancelled, and she would not have the opportunity to play against strong competitors and get the kind of experience she needed. Ostensibly, the matches would be cancelled because there were not enough players or enough of an audience (Obley). 

 

In the meantime, Gibson needed a paying job. After graduating from college, she took a teaching position at Lincoln University in Missouri in the physical education department. She taught there for two years, in 1954 and 1955, but the salary was low. Gibson did not want to stay in Missouri. The pace of life was too slow and as an African-American, she had to endure segregation. Frustrated by her inability to win, Gibson considered giving up tennis. She almost enlisted in the Army in 1955 at the behest of a boyfriend who served in the military. Experiencing a crisis of confidence, she returned to Harlem after the school year ended in 1955, still thinking about the Army.  Fortunately for the tennis world, her coach persuaded her to reconsider and a tennis official offered her the opportunity to join a State Department-sponsored team that would travel to Southeast Asia to play. She accepted immediately.  It was a chance to see another part of the world and to play tennis in countries like India, Pakistan, and Burma. Gibson later wrote that she thought she was selected for the team because of her skin color, not her tennis skills. Race relations were poor in the US, and people around the world had read horror stories about such events as the murder of Emmett Till. As the only African-American in the group, Gibson attracted a great deal of attention on the tour. As expected, she was asked many questions about race relations in the US.  Her response was simply to say “…we’ve got a problem…but it’s a problem that certainly can be solved, and that I firmly believe will be solved” (Hajela; Gibson, 83-84; 88-102). As Gibson acknowledged, she was somewhat apolitical. Although she was a firm believer in civil rights, she was not interested in carrying a banner for the cause. Mostly she was interested in winning and in being the best at whatever she tried.

 

After the tour ended in 1956, Gibson headed for Europe and to Egypt to play in tournaments. She won 16 of the 18 tournaments she played outside of the US.  She did not, as she had hoped, win the Wimbledon singles that year (Gibson, 109-112). But success was within her grasp and she was beginning to chalk up a list of accomplishments.  In that same year she won the Wimbledon doubles title, paired with Angela Buxton. As a white woman and a Jew, Buxton had also experienced discrimination. She and Gibson became friends. Gibson would room with an injured but supportive Buxton the following year, finally winning the singles title at Wimbledon (“This Week in Black History” July 6, 1998).

 

Gibson’s tennis career would peak in the mid to late 1950s, in the years just before and just after her 30th birthday. In 1956 Gibson won her first “major,” the French Open. She was the first African-American to win that title (Bamberger; “Arthur Ashe…”).  Those who watched her play in this and other tournaments were impressed by her strength and by her ability. Sports Illustrated said of her: “She moves rangily around the court like a slightly awkward panther…” At the age of 13, future tennis champion Billie Jean King watched Gibson play. She later remembered that day, saying: “My heart was pounding…I thought…I hope I can play like that someday” (Ballard).

 

Gibson did not win the 1956 US Open, losing in the finals. Although Gibson was under a great deal of pressure because of the media attention, she refused to blame anyone but herself for her loss. She was beginning to believe that she was good enough to win. Meanwhile, other tournaments from around the world sent her invitations to play tennis. She was subsequently invited to play in the Pacific Southwest Championships in Los Angeles, winning that tournament, and then accepted an invitation from the Australian Lawn Tennis Association to play in a series of tournaments and exhibitions there. She won two and lost two of the major competitions against fellow American Shirley Fry, who had beaten her at both Wimbledon and Forest Hills. Gibson blamed her losses on her lack of consistency. Next Gibson headed back to Asia to defend her title there, winning once again (Gibson, 118-121;125).

 

Gibson was finally ready to dominate the game. The next two years would be banner years for her. She won the Wimbledon singles and doubles titles in both 1957and 1958, as well as the US Nationals. The Associated Press named her Female Athlete of the Year both years (Ballard; Hajela; Soukup). Reminiscing about her 1957 Wimbledon singles win, she said “…I felt all along that it was my day.” Friends later told her that after the win, she screamed “At last! At last!” (Gibson,133). The British were not sure what to make of her and were merely polite, but Americans were far more enthusiastic. After her 1957 win at Wimbledon, Americans greeted  her with a ticker-tape parade upon her return to New York (Bamberger).  No other African-American woman would reach the finals at Wimbledon until 1990, when Zina Garrison would play there. No other African-American woman would win at Wimbledon until 2000, when Venus Williams swept the tennis world.

 

While the tennis world recognized her talent, even if reluctantly, Gibson remained a victim of the same kinds of discrimination experienced by all African-Americans, no matter how famous. Travel was difficult for African-Americans in the 1950s. Public accommodations were segregated. Some hotels would not admit her as a guest, even as she became a rising tennis star. When supporters wanted to hold a luncheon to recognize her, one hotel turned them down (Chua-Eoan). Such discrimination would not become illegal until Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Despite this Gibson did not become bitter. She simply took the attitude that such policies, while foolish, were not important. In her autobiography, she commented “Maybe I can’t stay overnight at a good hotel in Columbia, South Carolina, or play a tennis match against a white opponent in the sovereign state of Louisiana, which has a law against such a social outrage, but I can get along without sleeping at the Wade Hampton and I don’t care if I never set foot in Louisiana. There is, I have found out, a whole lot of world outside Louisiana – and that goes for South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, and all the other places where they haven’t got the message yet…” (Gibson, 157).  She simply went about her life, continuing to tour and continuing to play.

 

Tennis did not make Gibson rich. From the beginning, she had to depend on others to help her cover her expenses. Boxer Joe Lewis bought her a plane ticket for her first Wimbledon tournament, and other friends helped her out over the years (Ballard). When she retired, she had virtually no savings or investments at all after her many years as a player. As an amateur, she was unable to capitalize on her fame. The US Lawn Tennis Association provided some money for expenses, but little was left over. Although Gibson lived frugally, she had had to depend on the largesse of friends for years, and she wanted to be self-sufficient. As she said to those who wondered why she was retiring from amateur tennis, “Being a champ is all well and good, but you can’t eat a crown…I may be the Queen of Tennis right now, but I reign over an empty bank account…” (Gibson and Curtis,15). In 1958 she turned professional, but by this time, she was already 30, an age at which athletes are often considered past their peak. That year, Gibson also wrote her autobiography, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody, a poignant title that perhaps summarizes well her hopes and dreams. In those days little prize money was available for women’s sports, and as an African-American, Gibson had no opportunities to make money by selling her name and face for advertisements. Gibson continued to play tennis but soon retired from the sport. It would be another ten years before major tournaments would begin to pay professional tennis players (Hajela). Women players would have to wait even longer in order to be able to earn a good living at the sport.

 

After retiring from tennis, Gibson turned to another venue that was close to her heart. She liked to sing, and had won a prize in an amateur singing contest as a teenager in 1943. In the years after, as she noted “I was never without a song on my lips” (Gibson and Curtis, 22). During her years playing amateur tennis she had often been asked to sing before the crowds.  In 1957, she began to work with a voice coach, but juggling her voice lessons with playing tennis was difficult. A record company official who heard her sing at a testimonial dinner asked her to record an album.  Although it seemed that her career had taken a new direction, luck was not on her side. She had little time to work on the songs, and came down with the flu shortly before her scheduled recording date. All the songs would be recorded in one session. As she notes, “…conditions were far from ideal” (Gibson and Curtis, 31). The album was released in 1958. She was subsequently asked to appear on the Ed Sullivan show and sing. Although she received mixed reviews from the critics, Sullivan asked her to return a second time and to sing another song. Despite the popularity of the Ed Sullivan show, her album did not sell well. However, by this time Gibson was on her way to what she hoped would be a Hollywood career. Although she had no training as an actress, Gibson had obtained a small role in a John Wayne film entitled The Horse Soldiers. Few roles were available for African-Americans and stereotyping was rampant. She would play the part of a maid in the Civil War era film. Gibson had to fight to have some of the most objectionable dialect removed from her character’s speech. The film was released in 1959, but it did not lead to other movie offers.

 

Despite that disappointment, other doors were opening. Gibson would have the opportunity to earn a good salary as part of an opening act for the Harlem Globetrotters, the popular entertainers who played their own version of basketball before crowds all over the world. Gibson was becoming a businesswoman, forming a corporation that would negotiate a figure of more than $80,000 for the first year’s tour. While much of the money would go to cover expenses, it was still, in Gibson’s words, “a breathtaking sum…” (Gibson and Curtis, 51). She might even be able to save some money. Gibson would play tennis with another tennis player before each game or during the halftime period.

 

She asked an old friend and competitor, Karol Fageros, to join her in that role. In late 1959, they began an exhausting tour that stretched from one end of the nation to the other. When the tour ended in April of 1960, Gibson had salted away enough money to make a down payment on a house for her family, and had attracted the interest of Ward Baking Company. For the next five years, she would earn $25,000 a year by making speeches about her life experiences at civic functions all around the country under Ward’s sponsorship, fitting these events into her schedule.  The Globetrotters asked Gibson to join them on their international tour, but she turned them down. Gibson hoped she could earn even more money with her own basketball-tennis tour. As she laid her plans, she donated her time for free tennis clinics and played in a professional tournament in Cleveland. Despite her win, the purse barely covered her expenses. It would not be possible to make a living by going that route. In her own words, “I began to lose interest in tennis” (Gibson and Curtis, 77). But she had committed herself to a national tennis-basketball tour. It was to prove a financial disaster. Without the draw of the Harlem Globetrotters, audiences showed little interest, and the tour lost a great deal of money. Althea Gibson was broke.

 

During the next several years, which she described as “the lowest moment of my career” (Gibson and Curtis, 96), Gibson traveled extensively for Ward Baking Company, making numerous public appearances. She began to save money and pay back the money she owed. She no longer wished to play tennis, but she needed a physical outlet. Her thoughts began to turn to golf and to new challenges.  Gibson had enjoyed playing golf for many years. As she noted in her autobiography, she had thought about a professional career in golf as early as 1958. A fine athlete who excelled at many sports, she could drive a golf ball well over 200 yards down the fairway. Gibson had never had any formal training in golf, but many observers had noted her natural ability. Although she was already in her early 30s, she might be able to play this game and to win. She persuaded her sponsor, Ward Baking Company, to continue to provide support so that she could take lessons and practice, although she would have to do this at public courses. Most private courses did not allow African-Americans to join or to play. Many also did not allow women of any race on the links.

 

Thus, in 1961 Gibson took up golf and began to work toward earning her player’s card so that she could compete in professional tournaments and be eligible to win money. She practiced on public courses that were often crowded, and often had to play with strangers. She worked hard but found a kind of peace in the rhythm of the game. It was almost a religious experience for her.  But playing golf was expensive, even on public courses. Ward Baking Company was her main source of income, and would continue to be so until the company terminated the contract in 1965. Finally, Jerry Volpe, who was both owner and pro at the Englewood Golf Club and who thought Gibson had potential, gave her an honorary membership in his club. This freed her from some of the financial pressures. She was the only African-American to hold a membership there at that time (Gibson and Curtis, 107-112). Gibson was finding that her years of tennis adversely affected her swing. For example, she tended to hook the ball, curving the ball to the left. Her putting game also needed a lot of work. Finally, she felt she was ready. She played in a few amateur tournaments before playing in her first professional tournament at Kenwood Country Club in Cincinnati, Ohio. Thus, she was to break yet another barrier by becoming the first African-American to play on the LPGA tour.

 

Gibson had notified the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) of her intention to play golf as a professional. Now she had to compete. She would have to score in the top 80% in three out of four successive LPGA tournaments in order to win the coveted player’s card. Gibson did not play well enough in 1963 to win her player’s card. But she continued to work on her game, and played well enough win the card in 1964. However, it was not all smooth sailing even from that point on. Just as in her tennis playing days, she sometimes experienced discrimination. At some clubs, she was allowed to play on the course but not permitted to use the facilities at the clubhouse. Once she had her player’s card, she felt that she was in a position to complain to the LPGA. In her autobiography, she notes that on more than one occasion, a club that had humiliated her in this manner subsequently lost its LPGA tournament. Whether her complaints were the sole cause is impossible to say (Gibson and Curtis, 134-136).

 

Although she did not win and made little money, she played in 171 tournaments between 1963 and 1977. Bob Botsch, an avid golfer (and co-editor of this web page) saw her play in an LPGA tournament in Winchester, Virginia around 1969. “The crowd afforded her the greatest respect. Many realized that they were seeing a legend in action. They were not disappointed. Her power and grace on the tennis court carried over to her golf swing. She strode the course like the world class athlete she was and pounded the ball far beyond most of her competitors” (Botsch).

 

As Gibson approached the end of her professional career, she began to contribute in other ways to the world of sports. She taught tennis clinics and gave lectures about physical fitness (“Teeing it up”). Winning had always been important to Gibson, and she would tell young players to “focus on what you’re supposed to do, not what’s around you.” She encouraged young players who were beginning to play professional tennis to think big.  Leslie Allen, who won many tournaments during her career, noted that Gibson urged her and others to focus on winning tournaments. “It changed my whole mindset” she said (Amdur).

 

With her friend Frances Clayton Gray, Gibson founded an organization to help young people who wanted to play tennis or golf, the Althea Gibson Foundation (Strunsky; Obley).  She was appointed as New Jersey’s State Commissioner of Athletics in 1975 and held this position for the next ten years. Subsequently, she was appointed to the state’s athletics control board, serving on that body until 1988. She was also appointed to the governor’s council on physical fitness, serving until 1992 (“First Black Tennis Champion”).  After her retirement, Gibson continued to play golf for recreation and sometimes scored in the low 70s. She unsuccessfully attempted a comeback in 1990 at the age of 63. Although no doubt money was a factor, at heart Gibson was always simply an athlete who enjoyed competition. As her manager said at the time: “She loves golf…” (“Teeing it up”).

 

Although recognition was late in coming, Althea Gibson received a number of honors in her lifetime, as well as some that were posthumous. In 1971 Gibson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. In 1988 Gibson gave her Wimbledon trophies to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC (Hajela). In 1994 she was one of seven South Carolinians included in a special exhibit of photographs of 75 African-American women entitled “I Dream a World” displayed at the State Museum in Columbia (Smith Brinson).  In 1997, on her 70th birthday, she was recognized at the dedication of the Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York City, although by then she was too sick to attend in person (“This Week” July 6, 1998; “Arthur Ashe”). Along with other prominent and representative South Carolina African-Americans, her likeness was included on the African-American monument that has stood on the grounds of the State House in Columbia since 2001. In 2002 she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, one of only a handful of South Carolinians to receive that honor (Moulton). In April 2002, Clarendon County named the road that ran through Gibson’s native Silver and the Manning tennis center for her. Many relatives came for the ceremony, but Gibson could not attend. Fran Gray noted that Gibson had liked working with young people, and felt that this was “marvelous” (Spear). Although Gibson was ill during the last part of her life, she worked with Frances Clayton Gray and Yanick Rice Lamb on one final book, Born to Win: The Althea Gibson Story. As of this writing, it was scheduled to be published in 2004 (Hajela). In 2004 the SC chapter of the NAACP honored her posthumously by naming its new Palmetto Student Athletic and Scholastic Achievement Awards for her (NAACP).

 

With little time for anything but athletic competition, Gibson did not marry until she was in her thirties. She was married twice and had no children (“First Black Tennis Champion”). Sadly, she had no immediate family to be with her in her final years, when she lived in East Orange, NJ.  She died of respiratory failure in a hospital there on September 28, 2003. She was 76 and had been in declining health for some time, having previously suffered several strokes (Abel; Ballard; Barovik). Gibson was reduced to living on Social Security and kept to herself for most of her last twenty years of life. She did not want others to see her sick and living in reduced circumstances, although fans raised money to help her when they heard about her situation. She was unwilling to allow even close friends to visit (Hajela; Nichols). She refused to grant interviews, fearing that the media and the public would simply feel sorry for her. As Fran Gray commented, “She wanted to live out the rest of her days with dignity.” Perhaps, as Gray noted, it was really her depression that killed her (Obley). Despite all that she had done, Gibson was not a household name at the time of her death. To young people, she was barely a memory of a time they could not fathom.

 

At a memorial service held at a Newark, NJ church, David Dinkins, former mayor of New York, summed up Gibson’s contributions, saying “A lot of folks stood on her shoulders…I’m not just talking about black folks, but many others who were inspired by what she achieved.” Zina Garrison, who in 1990 became the first African-American finalist at Wimbledon since Gibson, agreed, saying “You broke down the doors for me and so many others” (Strunsky; Hajela).  Told about Gibson’s death, tennis champion Venus Williams said: “I am grateful to Althea Gibson for having the strength and courage to break through the racial barriers in tennis…Her accomplishments set the stage for my success …” (“First Black tennis”).

 

In a commemorative article written after her death, a Sports Illustrated writer noted “Gibson had a huge serve and at five foot eleven inches, extraordinary reach” (Ballard). Tony Trabert, who played tennis around the same time as Gibson, noted that she played as hard as she could and was not afraid to take chances. “She hits the ball and plays like a man” Trabert said, strong praise from a player of that generation (Amdur).  It is hard to say what heights Althea Gibson might have achieved if doors had been opened to her at a younger age.

 

*Gibson states in her first autobiography, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody, that she was born on August 25, as do some accounts of her life. Others state that her date of birth was April 25.

 

Pictures of Gibson can be viewed on a number of websites, including that of the Althea Gibson Foundation.

 

 

Sources:

 

Abel, Olivia. “The Natural: Althea Gibson b. 1927.” People Weekly 60 (October 13, 2003): 94.

 

“Althea Gibson.” National Women’s Hall of Fame – Women of the Hall. Accessed at http://www.greatwomen.org/women.php?action=viewone&id=186 on 6/18/04

 

“Althea Gibson Chronology.” Biography of Althea Gibson. Accessed online at http://www.altheagibson.com/bio.html on 6/21/04.

 

Amdur, Neil. “2002 US Open Preview; After 50 Years, Gibson Hasn’t Lost Her Luster.” New York Times (August 26, 2002): F6. Accessed online on 8/22/04.

 

“Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson honored at opening of new stadium.” Ebony 53 (November 1997): 146.

 

Bamberger, Michael. “Inside the White Lines: July 6, 1957 Althea Gibson Wins Wimbledon.” Sports Illustrated 91 (November 29, 1999): 114.

 

Barovick, Harriet. “Milestones.” Time 162 (October 13, 2003): 25.

 

Botsch, Robert E. Personal interview. August 20, 2004.

 

Bush, George W. “Statement on the Death of Althea Gibson.” Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents 39 (October 6, 2003): 1281.

 

Chua-Eoan, Howard. “The woman who was somebody: while the world celebrates tennis, a pioneer languishes in East Orange, NJ.” Time 150 (September 8, 1997): 4.

 

Crumbo, Chuck. “African-American Monument Awes, Overwhelmes Lunchtime Visitors.” The State (March 31, 2001): B1.

 

“First Black tennis champion Althea Gibson dies in East Orange, NJ, at 76.” Jet 104 (October 13, 2003): 51.

 

Gibson, Althea. I Always Wanted to be Somebody. Ed. Ed Fitzgerald. New York: Harper and Row, 1958.

 

Gibson, Althea and Richard Curtis. So Much to Live ForNew York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1968.

 

“Gibson Funeral.” The State (September 30, 2003): C5.

 

“Gibson a Trailblazer.” The State (October 4, 2003): A8.

 

“Grand Slam: History of Blacks in Tennis.” Black Enterprise 25 (September 1994): 84.

 

Hajela, Deepti. “Trailblazing Tennis Star Althea Gibson Dies at 76.” The State (September 29, 2003): A1.

 

Lindsey, Fred R. “Black Queens of the Tennis Court.” Black Issues Book Review 3 (March 2001): 76.

 

Moulton, Chris. Assistant Director, National Women’s Hall of Fame. Email. June 23, 2004.

 

“NAACP Award Named for Althea Gibson.” The State (April 20, 2004): B3.

 

Nichols, Rachel. “Gibson Had Game, But Gave Much More.” The State (September 30, 2003): C5.

 

Obley, Patrick. “Charleston Tennis Center Honors Althea Gibson.” The State (April 16, 2004): A1.

 

Obley, Patrick. “Forgotten.” The State (April 18, 2004): C3.

 

“Overlooked Heroine” in “Breaking the Barriers: A Houston Chronicle Special Section.” Accessed online at http://cgi.chron.com/content/chronicle/sports/special/barriers/gibson.html on 6/21/04.

 

“Playing Tennis on the ATA Tour.” Black Enterprise 28 (September 1997): 144.

 

Schrock, Cliff. “Golf’s Losses: McCormack, Hope among notable deaths.” Golf Digest 55 (February 2004): NE-6.

 

“Significant Events in Women’s Sports History.” The State (May 20, 2003): C5.

 

Smith Brinson, Claudia. “Exhibit Symbolizes Dreams Realized Achievements of 75 Black Women Focus of Photos at Museum.” The State (March 21, 1994): B3.

 

Soukup, Elise. “Transition.” Newsweek (October 13, 2003): 12.

 

Spear, Bob. “Gibson Dies Without Fanfare She Deserves.” The State (September 30, 2003): C1.

 

Spear, Bob. “Magazine’s List Misses Some Giants.” The State (September 11, 2003): C1.

 

“Sports in Brief.” The State (October 2, 2003): C2.

 

Strunsky, Steve. “Gibson Hailed as a Pioneer.” The State (October 3, 2003): C1.

 

“Teeing it Up.” Sports Illlustrated 73 (September 10, 1990): 26.

 

“Ten Greatest Women Athletes.” Ebony 57 (March 2002): 74.

 

“This Week in Black History.” Jet 94 (July 6, 1998): 19.

 

“This Week in Black History.” Jet 100 (July 9, 2001): 19.

 

“This Week in Black History.” Jet 104 (July 28, 2003): 20.

 

Zupan, Fran H. “Women of Record Sites Honor Groups of Women.” The State (March 13, 1994): 4E.

 

Carol Sears Botsch

Associate Professor of Political Science, USC Aiken

carolb@usca.edu

 

Last updated 8/25/04