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.
Find out more: The best introduction to Gibson is to watch her perform, and there are several short videos on YouTube where you can see the range of her game.
Discussion: Do you feel that Gibson’s multiple interests may have kept her from even greater fame on the tennis courts? Or was her game aided and abetted by her versatility?
Place in context: Gibson apparently disavowed participating in the Civil Rights Movement, and you wonder why and how the times in which she lived in the late 1940s and early 1950s might have affected her political activity.
Robinson, the boxing immortal, knew of Gibson’s ability as a bowler and often took her to alleys in the Bronx. During one of their outings, she expressed an interest in having an alto saxophone, and Robinson obliged. Music was on her mind, but Robinson conditioned his gifts, part of which demanded that she take the doctors’ offer. A year later, in 1947, the Gibson gallop to glory was underway when she was victorious in the first of many American Tennis Association national championships. When she graduated at 19 in 1948, she was the top student in her class at Williston Industrial High School and subsequently accepted a scholarship to attend Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College in Tallahassee.
Before her graduation from the college in 1953—thanks in part to former top player Alice Marble’s letter of endorsement—she was allowed to participate in her first outdoor United States Lawn Tennis Association event and in the U.S. National Tennis Championships at Forest Hills and in Wimbledon at the All-England Tennis Championships, becoming the first Black woman, and sometimes the first African-American, to break these barriers.
Meanwhile, to further enhance her game, she worked with renowned tennis coach Sydney Llewellyn. The new coach was apparently very effective because she became a top player on the circuit, and in a three-year span between 1956 and 1959, she compiled a fantastic winning streak, garnering the Australian, French and U.S. opens, and Wimbledon, according to her website.
In 1957, she won both the women’s singles and doubles at Wimbledon—a victory that was rewarded with a ticker tape parade in New York City upon her return. Overall, Gibson attained 56 singles and doubles championships before turning pro in 1959.
Although she was viewed by her fans as a pioneer who had hurdled over some significant race barriers, Gibson took little notice of these remarkable achievements. In her autobiography, “I Always Wanted to Be Somebody” (1958), she stated, “I am no crusader,” and brushed aside any notion that she was a civil or human rights activist.
What activated her tireless spirit by 1960, despite still commanding solid paydays, especially in exhibition bouts before Harlem Globetrotters games, was the golf course. While she broke another color barrier, she had trouble breaking par and returned to tennis in 1968.
It was the age of the Open tournaments but not the age for Gibson, who found it very challenging to compete with her younger opponents. By 1971, the handwriting was on the wall. She stepped away from the game, but not away from the spotlight, as she began to perform on stage with her saxophone and her voice, in addtion to accepting roles in a number of films.
Among her final hurrahs was as commissioner of athletics in New Jersey, where she served from 1975 to 1985, along with a stint as a member of the governor’s council on physical fitness. None of these positions were fruitful enough to stave off the hard luck she experienced toward the end of her life. Tennis great Billie Jean King was among the celebrities who came to her aide when she faced bankruptcy.
It was largely a number of ailments that left her financially strapped, including two cerebral hemorrhages and a stroke. A fighter right to the end, she was 76 when she suffered and survived a heart attack in 2003. But later in the year, on Sept. 28, she died from complications following respiratory and bladder infections. She is buried in Rosedale Cemetery in Orange, N.J., next to Will Darben, her first husband.