Althea Gibson, the pioneer

Aug 30, 2013, 12:00:00 AM

Althea Gibson, the pioneer
In 1950, Althea Gibson became the first black woman to participate in the U.S. Open, and in a Grand Slam. Discover her incredible life...

The first black star of tennis and golf. Saxophonist, actress but also leading figure in the fight against racial segregation in the U.S., Althea Gibson was the first coloured athlete to have competed at the U.S. Open in 1950. Before winning the title a just few years later, as well as 56 other tournaments during her career. Portrait of a great champion who died penniless, between racism and Harlem Globetrotters.


«Let's not beat around the bush. It turns out that I tan easily in the summer, but I doubt that we can question my right to play tennis because of this...» In a letter written to the very serious American Lawn Tennis magazine in 1950, Alice Marble was in a cynical mood. The former American star player of the 1930s, went around the newsrooms and into lobbying. Her goal? The defence of a friend, Althea Gibson, 23, black tennis player, against the United States Federation to allow her to participate in the United States National Championships, the ancestor of the U.S. Open. Insults, political pressures and even burglary at her home: the battle fought by Marble and some officials of women's tennis was a difficult job. But after months of tough negotiations, the result was there, and it was historic: Althea Gibson became the first black woman to walk the courts of a Grand Slam tournament. A beautiful shook to the racial segregation laws in place at the time.


For her debut, this young Harlem's adopted daughter only had a few subway stops between the family home and the stadium. About twenty minutes underground in the sweltering heat, in the middle of the summer. Her family fled to New York after the 1929 economic crisis, affecting mainly the rural south. "They told me that I was born on August 25th, 1927 in a small town called Silver, South Carolina. I don't remember anything from this Carolina. All I remember is New York" she said in her autobiography. The family apartment was located on 143th Avenue, in a place where for reasons of security, police was barricading the entrance so that children could play sports during the day. At night, the streets were denied access. At home, the atmosphere wasn't warmer. « Dad was beating me up, she said, and I'm not talking about spankings ». On the courts, for her first major tournament, Althea was narrowly eliminated in the second round. But it was a good enough performance to make her tall stature, her incredible service as well as her feline and fine tactics stand out. Despite the loss, her participation received a broad international media coverage. On site, 2000 people rushed in the stands. Some scuffles even forced the Pinkertons, a private American detective and security agency, to close the doors. "Seeing a black player was like an attraction" wrote David Eisenberg, a reporter for the New York Journal-American. Beyond the passion and the result, the certainty of a better future was rising in front of her. "I played tennis because it allowed me to leave my neighbourhood. On the courts, most of the guys stopped playing and looked at me. Not because I was pretty, but because I was playing really well».


First African-American to win a Grand Slam


Skipping school assiduously, Althea Gibson completely stopped her studies at the age of 13 years - only - to work at the Harlem social services. Critical period during which a family friend, boxing champion Sugar Ray Robinson, gave Althea her first tennis lessons. The early days were promising. "For my first tournament, the girl I beat in the final was white. I can't deny that this victory was even more enjoyable for me, she wrote. Then I began to understand that you could walk on the court as a lady of the world, all dressed in immaculate white, be polite with everyone then play like a tiger when it came to be on a court." A musician offered her her first racket, a couple of physicists paid for her to resume studies. Result: a degree in physical education from the University of Lincoln, Missouri, where she fell in love with an officer in the Air Force before setting herself a crazy goal: to win a major tournament. Done deal in 1956 during her first and only participation at Roland Garros, where she also became the first African-American player to win a Grand Slam. Incidentally, Althea also won the U.S. Open and Wimbledon the following year, considered at that time as "the world championship of tennis." Icing on the cake, Queen Elizabeth II was presenting for the first time in her reign the trophy to the winner. A historic moment. "The Queen shook my hand, she exhilarated then. What a long way from South Carolina, where I was forced to sit on the bus with the other black people, and where the whites were refusing to give me their hand."


Upon her return to New York, a human tide was awaiting her. Since Jesse Owens and her gold medals at the 1936 Games in Berlin, never a crowd had moved so many people to cheer a coloured athlete. In the stands, the mayor of the city broke down into tears. But in the head of the American, the moment wasn't one for celebrations. Despite her 56 victories in tournaments including 11 Grand Slams in doubles, mixed doubles and simple, Gibson revealed her secret to the world: completely ruined she was forced to retire from the amateur world to become a professional. It was in November 1958: "The truth, to put it bluntly is that tennis doesn't pay enough for me to eat. And I can tell you that I am very hungry." Yes, before 1968 and the invention of the Open era, the tennis world was split into two camps. On one side, amateur players, on the other, professionals under contract with promoters who made their living by organizing tennis matches, like in boxing. The first didn't receive any fee for their participation in tournaments, in the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas or Grand Slam matches. Professional players didn't have access to these competitions but they, as explained Althea "had the chance to fill their fridge every day."


Harlem Globetrotters, heart attack and golf balls


In 1959, Gibson signed a lucrative contract for a series of exhibitions held during each half time of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team matches. At the same time, as she was a very good saxophonist, she recorded an album of American standards, and a compilation of Christmas songs. The sales were disappointing. She then went on to be an actress in The Horsemen (1959) by John Ford, where she played a slave, but refused the dialogue and dialect imposed by the script which were too stereotypical "niger" to her taste. And tennis in all this? "When I looked around, I only saw white tennis players, some I had previously beaten, being offered games and invitations. Suddenly I realized that my success didn't destroy racial barriers as I - perhaps naively - hoped."

In 1964, at the age of 37, Gibson had a moment of madness. And once again became the first African American woman to join the professional tour... of golf! An environment where racial discrimination had never been so intense. Especially when her competitors were stealing all her balls before each tournament and... were repainting them in black, as she was getting ready in her car since most clubhouses refused her entry to the changing rooms. Colour separation still in application. With the arrival of the Open era, she tried a final return in tennis but at forty years old past, her legs didn't follow. The seventies would be her politic years, during which Althea led the sports policy of some cities, in between several Pepsi commercials and a failed wedding.


The next twenty years would be the period of health concerns. One winter evening in 1995, her former double partner, Angela Buxton, a British Jew, received a phone call at her home: "Angie, baby, it's Althea. I can't stay much longer, I'm going to kill myself, I have no money, I'm very sick, I don't have medication because I can't pay the bills, I can't even pay my rent." Buxton immediately launched a call for donations and with the help of many medias, even harvest a million dollars. This action only managed to postpone the inevitable. In 2003, after surviving a heart attack, Althea Gibson died at the age of 76 following a respiratory infection, after 10 years of disease, and completely penniless. Four years later at the ceremony celebrating the 50th anniversary of her victory at the U.S. Open, Alan Schwartz, President of the United States Tennis Association, read a few words of a speech by Alice Marble before her death. The woman without whom, in fact, nothing would have been possible: "Who could have imagined? Who would have thought? Here we stood in front of a black woman, raised in Harlem, who was to become a tennis player... In fact, the first black champion of the world."


By Victor Le Grand