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The supremely versatile Althea Gibson

Herb Boyd | 6/12/2014, 10:42 a.m.
Althea Gibson

If there is a marker on 143rd Street near Malcolm X Boulevard for tennis great Althea Gibson, it is not clearly visible. And if there is one for her embedded on the Walk of Fame on 135th Street, it’s perhaps obscured by debris. Ironically, it was in the streets of Harlem that she first gained public recognition.

This Week in Black History

June 9, 1954: Professor Alain Locke, often viewed as the doyen of the Harlem Renaissance, died on this date.

June 11, 1920: Pianist and singer Hazel Scott is born on this date in Trinidad. She would later wed the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

June 13, 1967: Thurgood Marshall became the first African-American appointed to the Supreme Court on this date.

When the Police Athletic League had its summer paddle ball tournaments, few could match her prowess, and that included the boys in the neighborhood. This was the first sign of her versatility, and it soon came to the attention of a prominent musician, Buddy Walker, who was convinced she could do just as well with a tennis racquet in her hand. He introduced the gangling young lady, who was still a teenager, to the Harlem Metropolitan Club and placed her under the tutelage of Fred Johnson.

It took a while for Gibson to conform to the discipline the sport required, and there was always that wild streak about her—that tendency to stray from routine as she often did from school—and an unbridled curiosity that characterized her later years.

Gibson was born Aug. 25, 1927, in a very small town in South Carolina, where her family worked on cotton farms. Free from toil in the South, Gibson had lots of time on her hands in Harlem, and she was single-minded about play. “All I wanted to do was play, play, play,” she told a reporter. And play she did—pool, hopscotch, jump rope, stickball, bowling, basketball and roller skating—all of which she did very well.

But it was tennis that would finally corner her attention, and with instructions from Johnson and the mothering provided by Rhoda Smith, Gibson was on the path that would take her to fame and glory. Fame and glory on the courts did not, however, come as fast as she might have liked, given that she was an exceedingly quick study who never took too long to master a particular game. Even so, it took a series of defeats to sharpen her ability to control her backhand and use her great height—she was nearly six feet tall—and reach to their best advantage. After this, it was a mere matter of acquiring the best coaches who could teach her some of the finer points of volleying, net play and tactical gambits.

It was right at the end of World War II when Gibson was competing in a tournament at Wilberforce College in Ohio that two doctors—Hubert Eaton and Robert Johnson—recognized her potential. Together, they garnered the money to finance her room, board and education without any expense to her if she would devote time and study in Wilmington, N.C. If it hadn’t been for Sugar Ray Robinson and his wife, Edna, Gibson might never had taken the offer.