On Juneteenth we honor a singular pioneer.
She was a sharecropper’s daughter born in grit-poor South Carolina. After making just $75 in 1930, Gibson’s dad left his cotton-field shack for an apartment on the toughest block in Harlem. There, Althea coped with her blues by pulling all-nighters and escaped her whiskey-happy father by riding New York’s rumbling subways. Who knew this defiant kid would go on to be the bold, brave pioneer who shattered the barriers of an imposing “whiter shade of pale” sport – tennis in the ‘50s?
“She’s our Jackie Robinson,” said ex-pro Rodney Harmon. “Without her, we might not have had Ashe, Zina, Katrina, Lori McNeil, MaliVai, Venus or Serena.” Gibson was like both Venus (angular, erect, dignified, elegant) and Serena (powerful and with plenty of ‘tude). An in-your-face tomboy, she played hoops and stickball, boxed and had a 195 bowling average. And don’t try to hustle her at pool. Eventually, Althea became a pro golfer and a lights-out torch singer. She delivered a simple, transformative message: African Americans can play tennis. “Her contribution to civil rights,” noted a friend, “was with her racket.”
Gibson emerged in the ‘50s, before the Civil Rights movement, when a rabid racism ruled. Integrated clubs? You gotta be kidding! Inspiring African-American role models in tennis? Dream on! Impactful “multicultural” programs? Please! Except in a narrow, virtually hidden sector, blacks didn’t even play. African American pro Leslie Allen explained: “It was like, ‘You black folks need to stick to basketball, or running and jumping, because you don’t have the mental acumen for tennis…But Althea set the bar. If she could do it, anybody could. She was empowering. She was the light.”
Gibson’s youth was a mosaic of whippings, welfare apartments, foster homes, menial jobs, free-form escapades and her beloved sports. She worked as an elevator operator and chicken plucker. Maya Angelou wrote, “Althea was a wild, arrogant tomboy… Her life on the streets was a one-way ticket to nowhere…[Her] dreams were dying.” Then a paddle-ball court was installed on her block – and her journey began. With the help of an unemployed saxophonist, a one-armed coach, Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, a courageous San Francisco blonde and the British Jew Angela Buxton, a rose emerged.
Convinced she had to leave Harlem to improve her tennis, Althea went south, graduated from Florida A&M and soon dominated black tennis. But she was banned from the country club tourneys that were the gateway to the national championships at Forest Hills. “Goodness,” claimed the USLTA, “we can’t possibly do anything to get you into Forest Hills.” In 1950 Wimbledon champ Alice Marble called their BS. She wrote a devastating letter to the American Lawn Tennis Magazine, saying she’d be “bitterly ashamed” if tennis’ whites-only ways continued: “No one will be honest enough to shoulder the responsibility…If sports has got to pave the way to civilization, let’s do it…[Then] tennis will take its place among the pioneers of a true democracy. The [USLTA] committee has the power to stifle Gibson…[but] eventually the tennis world will rise up en masse to protest these injustices. If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s time we act a little more like gentle people and less like sanctimonious hypocrites…[Althea] is over a cunningly-wrought barrel and I hope to loosen its staves with one lone opinion.”
Marble’s stance was a marvel. Althea would soon become the first African American to prevail at a major. She won the French, two Wimbledons, two US Nationals, was No. 1 and a doubles powerhouse. She was on the cover of Time, on a Wheaties box and got a ticker-tape parade. Fluid and graceful, she had generous 5’ 11” strides and described her game as “aggressive, dynamic and mean.”
What was also mean were all the whispers behind her back, the cold shoulders in the locker room and the boos from the stands. She was refused lodging and asked to prove she was female. She became a tennis and a golf pro, played before Globetrotter games, sang in nightclubs and was on TV and in a movie. Although she gained accolades, she would fall into poverty and endure solitude. Bernie Lincicome contended, “For every forgotten Gibson, there are hundreds of media creations enduring beyond their worth. Gibson could have been the Muhammad Ali of women’s sports. But that job fell to Billie Jean King, who knew how to enjoy and exploit fame.” Childless and twice widowed, the emotionally drained Gibson became an emaciated recluse who suffered arthritis, aneurysms and strokes. Eventually, tennis lovers provided generous support (including two $100 bills from a white South African pro who wrote on the bills that Althea was her inspiration and not all South Africans were racists). Before she passed in 2003, Althea’s once fierce competitive fire, courage and we-shall-overcome perseverance seemed to be spent. She confided, “It’s been a bewildering, challenging, exhausting experience, often more painful than pleasurable. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” And aren’t we grateful that the world didn’t miss Althea.