Althea Gibson

Althea Gibson breaks the color barrier

From Tennis Confidential by Paul Fein (published in 1999):

“Given the same chance as others have had, blacks would dominate our sport as they have in other sports”, asserted Arthur Ashe, tennis first black men’s champion, in 1968.

For the first half of the twentieth century, blacks had no chance to compete at, let alone dominate, world-class tournaments. A major reason for this racial discrimination was that white athletes in tennis and other sports were afraid of competing on an equal basis with blacks.

“For 120 years, white America has gone to extraordinay lengths to discredit and discourage black participation in sports because black athletes have been so successful,” Ashe wrote in a New York times column.

In the not-so-good old days, the “Whites only” signs on tennis courts didn’t refer only to clothes. To end that separate but unequal segregation and to promote the grassroots game among black Americans, the American Tennis Association was organized in 1916. Before the ATA, black players, chiefly from the Northeast, participated in invitational interstate tournaments, the first being staged in Philadelphia in 1898. But since blacks were barred from playing in United States Lawn Tennis Association – sanctioned tournaments prior to 1940, the ATA struggled for years to ovecome that towering barrier to equality.

Despite a shortage of rackets, balls, courts, topflight coaching and funds for travel, outstanding black players such as Ora Washington, Jimmie McDaniel, and Oscar Johnson Jr emerged. Washington, a superb all-around athlete, captured seven straight ATA national women’s singles titles from 1929 to 1935.
McDaniel was “the greatest black tennis player of them all,” according to Sydney Llewellyn, a self-described archivist of black tennis from New York’s Harlem neighborhood. “McDaniel was better than Ashe. He was bigger, stronger,” Llewellyn told Tennis USTA. “He was a tall lefty, maybe 6’5. He’d take etwo steps and be all over the net. He had it all. He would have won a bunch of Grand Slams somewhere along the line, if he had had the chance.”

He didn’t because his heyday, albeit an obscure one, ended in the 1940s. Johnson dubbed “the Jackie Robinson of tennis”, came closer. As a skinny seventeen-year-old from Los Angeles, he broke ground as the first black to play in and win a USLTA national tournament, the 1948 National Junior Public Parks. Five years later promoter Jack Kramer offered Johnson a pro contact, but a snapped ebow tendon prematurely finished his career.

Althea Gibson, born in 1927, as the daughter of sharecroppers, was an athletically talented tomboy who would often play street paddleball, pool and basketball. A mischievous kid, whose abusive father taught her to box, Gibson got into fistfights with both girls and boys.
Being both street-smart and street-tough, Gibson learned eary in life how to take care of herself. However, she would still need the financial and moral support of others, especially two black physicians, Hubert A. Eaton and R. Walter Johnson, as well as the sponsorship of 1930s champion Alice Marble, to make it in the lily-white tennis world.

By 1949, Gibson, a perennial ATA women’s champion had developed into a formidable, if somewhat raw, player. After reaching the quartefinals of the Eastern Indoors and National Indoors events, she was primed to compete at Forest Hills in the USLTA Nationals in 1950. But would she be allowed to play in the USLTA’s summer grass-court tourneys in order to qualify for the Nationals and to give her best performance there?

Marble, who had heroically fought Nazi racism as an American spy (getting shot in the back by a double agent) during World War II, challenged the wavering USLTA to allow Gibson to participate. In a rousing, courageous letter published in the July 1950 American Lawn Tennis magazine, Marble wrote:

“I think it’s time we faced a few facts. If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentle people and less like sanctimonious hypocrites. If there is anything left of sportsmanship, it’s moe than time to display what it means to us. If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts, where tennis is played.
But if she is refused a chance to succeed or to fail, then there is an uneradical mark against a game to which I have devoted most of my life, and I would be bitterly ashamed.
The entrance of Negroes into national tennis is as inevitable as it as proven to be in baseball, in football, or in boxing; there is no denying so much talent.
I’ve never met Miss Gibson but, to me, she is a fellow human being to whom equal privileges ought to be extended.”

Marble’s eloquent rebuttal of he USLTA’s discriminatory policies resulted in Gibson’s being accepted at the Orange Lawn Tennis Club in SOuth Orange, New Jersey, the USLTA National Clay Courts in Chicago and the USLTA Nationals, but only after they required her to be tested to confirm she was a woman. Newersey’s Maplewood Country Club, however, rejected her entry. The ATA deplored the New Jersey association’s “snobbishness, prejudice, and bad judgement,” and also objected to the implied quota of black players that henceforth would be allowed to enter the Nationals.

At Forest Hills, Gibson, a graceful serve-and-volleyer who described her game as “aggressive, dynamic and mean,” finally, at age twenty-three, demonstrated her unmistakable prowess to the whole world. She nearly beat three-time Wimbledon champion Louise Brough in a thrilling 6-1 3-6 9-7 second round battle.
Gibson then faced several disappointing years on the amateur tour, where her cold and unapproachable personality made her solitary, forlorn figure. Nearly all the white girls shunned her. Hostile crowds heckled her – sometimes calling her “nigger” – or ignored her spectacular shots. Prying newspapermen pestered her, and to make matters worse, the Negro press beat her brains because she was “not militant enough” as a civil rights crusader. Rather than admit her, some bigoted tournaments simply went out of business.

An extended tour of Southeast Asia for the US State Department in 1955 with Ham Richardson, Karol Fageros and Bob Perry gave Gibson a chance to work on her game without tournament pressures and did wonders for her. Rejuvenated, she took the 1956 French singles and doubles titles to become the first black in tennis to win a Grand Slam event.

Gibson reigned as the undisputed queen of tennis in 1957 and 1958 by capturing both the Wimbledon and US championships. After winning her first Wimbledon, she received heaps of telegrams from fans and luminaries, such as President Dwight D Eisenhower, Averell Harriman, and boxing champion Sugar Ray Robinson. And upon her return to New York, she was honored with a rare ticker-tape parade up Broadway to City Hall, where Mayor Robert Wagner gave her the medallion to the city.

Gibson recalled the culture shock of her incredible 1957 Wimbledon adventure in her 1958 autobiography, I always wanted to be somebody:

“It seemed like a long way from 143rd Steet.
Shaking hands with the Queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus going into downtown Wilmington, North Carolina.
Dancing with the Duke of Devonshire was a long way from not being allowed to bowl in Jefferson City, Missouri, because the white customers complained about it.”

Like Jackie Robinson and other black pioneers, Gibson paid a considerable price on her long, hard road to glory.

“If I’ve made it, it’s half because I was game to take a wicked amount of punishment along the way and half because there were an awful lot of people who cared enough to help me,” she wrote. “It has been a bewildering, challenging, exhausting experience, often more painful than pleasurable, more sad than happy. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

Ashe secured his own niche in tennis history as the first black man to win a Grand Slam crown at the inaugural US Open in 1968 and again as champion at the 1970 Australian Open and 1975 Wimbledon. Despite being a paragon of dignity and humanitarianism, Ashe lacked the personal charisma to inspire a new generation of black youngsters to take up tennis.

“What we need is an American Yannick Noah. In many respects, I wasn’t a really good role model,” Ashe acknowledeged in 1987. “We need someone who’s got flair and can play in-your-face tennis. And he should comport himself like Julius Erving.”

For nominees, how about those marvelous Williams sisters? Venus and Serena got game, sass and class. And together, they could dominate tennis just as Ashe predicted.

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