When we think of pioneering African-American athletes in sports like tennis and golf that traditionally were played only by white people or where the top tournaments were often closed to non-whites, we tend to think of Arthur Ashe and the Williams sisters and Tiger Woods. But long before any of them we had Althea Gibson, born in 1927 and who overcame a very tough childhood to win five Grand Slam tennis tournaments in the 1950s (French Open in 1956, Wimbledon in 1957, 1958 and the US Open in 1957, 1958). But for some inexplicable reason, her name has been allowed to fade into obscurity without her being give the full recognition she deserves. Unlike her contemporary Paul Robeson, the noted athlete, singer, and actor who was shunned during the McCarthy era because of his outspoken socialist views, Gibson was not political, which makes her neglect more surprising.
So I was glad to see this article about her life that filled in many gaps in my knowledge and that she is finally getting some recognition.
On Monday, a bronze sculpture of Gibson, the first black player to win a Grand Slam, will be unveiled outside Arthur Ashe Stadium at Flushing Meadows in New York – the world’s biggest tennis arena named after another pioneering African-American.
Yet the lack of recognition Gibson experienced during her life – she died in 2003, aged 76 – left her feeling neglected, pushed to the periphery of the sport she loved and eventually into poverty, which left her considering suicide.
She was fortunate that her immense talent was recognized by two people who nurtured her skills.
Dr Hubert Eaton and Dr Robert Johnson, two scholars with notable tennis ability who nurtured promising black players, spotted Gibson at the all-black American Tennis Association (ATA) national championship in 1946 and were astounded by her natural, yet combustible, ability.
Here, they thought, might be their Jackie Robinson – an athlete who could break down the racial barriers in tennis just like the Harlem-based Brooklyn Dodgers star was doing in baseball.
While excited by her talent, they felt her lack of education and discipline would hamper her progress. So they concocted a plan: she would live and train with Dr Eaton, the chief surgeon at the African-American hospital in Wilmington, North Carolina, during the school year, then stay with Dr Johnson in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the summer.
“Both Dr Eaton and Dr Johnson were what you referred to then as ‘racemen’,” Miller says.
“Both were civil rights organisers and they had a plan to create the first black tennis champion. Althea was their charge.”
It was also thanks to the solidarity shown to her by a white national champion Alice Marble in 1950, after the latter wrote an article that blasted the USTA for not allowing black players, that the US Open was opened to black players.
“The question I’m most frequently expected to answer is whether Althea Gibson will be permitted to play in the nationals this year,” Marble wrote.
“When I directed the question to a committee member of long standing he answered in the negative: ‘Ms Gibson will not be permitted to play and it will be the reluctant duty of the committee to reject her entry.’
“I think it is time we faced a few facts. If tennis is a game for ladies and gentleman, it is time we acted a little more like gentle people and less like sanctimonious hypocrites.”
The white powerbrokers retreated under increasing pressure and allowed Gibson to play at Forest Hills. Finally she was able to do what she had been yearning: to test herself against the world’s best players regardless of colour.
“Alice Marble’s letter was a turning point,” Davis says. “It said things we couldn’t say.
“People would not hear us if we were to say it, but coming from a prominent world-class athlete like her it carried a lot of weight.
“I believe Alice’s letter also opened the doors to the other Grand Slams and enabled Althea to win them.”
Gibson was later asked to play doubles by a British Jewish player Angela Buxton who had, as a result of the anti-Semitic discrimination she herself had received from society and her fellow players, felt a sense of kinship with Gibson and they became good friends.
Aside from tennis, a mutual fondness for films and salt beef sandwiches cemented their friendship and resulted in a doubles partnership which claimed the French Championships and Wimbledon titles in 1956.
“Rather than sitting around doing nothing, we decided to play doubles. I asked her and she said: ‘No-one has ever asked me before – of course I will.’
“We played and were much much better than anyone else. We won easily.
“We weren’t trying to prove a point. In hindsight, there was some history-making there – in being outsiders, joining forces and beating everybody.
“I can see it now quite clearly, but we didn’t then.”
No one had taught Gibson how to handle money and later in life, she became poor and desperate and living in obscurity. She was contemplating suicide until Buxton heard about her situation and helped her get back on her feet.
Gibson’s life story would make for a great film (there are rumors that one may in the works) and then she might finally receive the widespread recognition that she deserves.