Althea Gibson: The pioneering champion America forgot

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Althea Gibson: The pioneering champion America forgot
Gibson was the first black player to win a tennis Grand Slam

“Everything was white. The balls, the clothes, the socks, the shoes, the people. Ev-ery-thing.”

Billie Jean King grimaces as she slowly emphasises that final word. The American tennis great is describing how the US National Championships – the forerunner of the US Open, which starts on Monday – looked 70 years ago.

Whether it was a written or an unwritten rule is still not clear. Nevertheless, it was an indisputable stance from the United States Tennis Association (USTA): black players were not permitted to enter.

Imagine Serena Williams, Venus Williams or Coco Gauff being barred from playing at their home Grand Slam because of the colour of their skin.

In 1949, that is exactly what Althea Gibson had to live with.

On Monday, a bronze sculpture of Gibson, the first black player to win a Grand Slam, will be unveiled outside Arthur Ashe Stadium at Flushing Meadows in New York – the world’s biggest tennis arena named after another pioneering African-American.

These two tributes stand as testaments to obstacles overcome, during a time when the United States was politically and socially rooted in racial segregation.

Yet the lack of recognition Gibson experienced during her life – she died in 2016, aged 76 – left her feeling neglected, pushed to the periphery of the sport she loved and eventually into poverty, which left her considering suicide.

“Althea was a forgotten pioneer – until recently,” Bob Davis, Gibson’s former hitting partner and now a historian of black tennis, tells BBC Sport.

“Now it seems the United States is willing to recognise that black tennis history was actually American tennis history. That has not always been the case.”

“As they laid the court we were first ones on, we stayed on and we challenged anyone in the block to play us. Nobody would.”

Ten miles from Flushing Meadows – across Queen’s and over the East River on the Robert F Kennedy Bridge into Manhattan – is Harlem.

Regarded as the cultural epicentre of black America, the borough has been renowned for artistic and sporting flair since the 1920s, when almost 200,000 African-Americans migrated to the predominantly white area north of Central Park to escape the still-segregated south of the country.

Despite some complaints about gentrification eroding its long-established identity, Harlem – characterised by fire-escape clad row houses, wide boulevards lined with restaurants, street traders selling anything from fruit and nuts to jewellery and T-shirts – is still predominantly occupied by black Americans. Some 61% of Harlem’s 112,495 population is black, according to the US Census Bureau, compared to 24.4% across the whole of New York.

The fabric of the present-day neighbourhood was woven by an explosion of creativity – known as the Harlem Renaissance – which saw revered names across stage, screen and sport nurtured in, or attracted to, the neighbourhood over the next few decades.

Jazz legends Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington regularly dazzled in front of packed audiences at Connie’s Inn or the Cotton Club. Another famous Harlem nightclub, the Smalls Paradise, was owned by NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain.

Boxing great Sugar Ray Robinson, meanwhile, traded business as well as punches, running the Golden Gloves Barber Shop, Sugar Ray’s Quality Cleaners and Edna Mae’s Lingerie Shop outside of the ring.

Gibson was another notable former resident.

The daughter of sharecroppers, she was born in the cotton fields of South Carolina, a Deep South state with a history rooted in slavery and exploitation.

“I worked for three years for nothing. I had to get out of there,” Gibson’s father Daniel said. Harlem beckoned.

Gibson playing paddle tennis in the streets of Harlem – having already become a champion

Gibson was raised in a small apartment block on West 143rd Street, between Lenox Avenue and Seventh Avenue, a cross-section blocked off every afternoon to become a ‘play street’, where inner-city children without access to a park could run around and practise sport in a safe space.

These days, the narrow avenue – typically Harlem with five-storey blocks of rented flats guarded by London plane trees and lines of cars on each side of the one-way road – is not taped off.

On a sweaty August afternoon, even when local children are out of school for the summer holidays, it is virtually silent.

Back when Gibson was growing up, in the 1930s and 1940s, it would have been a hive of activity, shrieking kids running around playing stickball, punchball, marbles and a variety of tag games. And as fate had it, there was another activity taking place on the doorstep of her childhood home.

“It all started with paddle tennis on the play streets of New York City,” Gibson told a BBC Radio 4 programme in 1989.

“Two bats and a sponge rubber ball. A short net and a short court. A friend of mine came round, we saw the bats and ball on the paddle tennis court so we started hitting back and forth.

“From that moment on we would get up in the morning as soon as they laid the court. That’s how I got started.”

The tall, athletic teenager with a fierce will to win and streetwise spirit – said to have been borne out of her father forcing her to fight him on the rooftop of their apartment block – began to attract attention.

Buddy Walker, the organiser of the play street on West 143rd, and a bandleader at a Harlem bar run by Robinson, spotted this precocious talent and took her to the Cosmopolitan Club, a private tennis club for the black middle classes in West Harlem.

There she started having lessons with the club’s one-armed professional, Fred Johnson. He honed her raw talent and developed the powerful serve and athleticism that became hallmarks of her game.

Gibson, who had been playing truant and sometimes slept on the subway to avoid going home, had the on-court talent. She struggled more when mixing with the doctors, lawyers and scholars who also played at the Cosmopolitan.

“She was a blue-collar kid and the black folks playing tennis were the bourgeoisie, who would try to school her in etiquette,” Rex Miller, a film director inspired to produce the documentary Althea after seeing a picture of his mother playing against Gibson, tells BBC Sport.

“But she was rebellious, even against more well-to-do blacks. When people are doing things for you it usually comes with strings attached so she had a way of alienating people who would ask her to do things.”

That unwillingness to co-operate changed after she met the men described by Davis as “the two godfathers of black tennis in America”.

Dr Hubert Eaton and Dr Robert Johnson, two scholars with notable tennis ability who nurtured promising black players, spotted Gibson at the all-black American Tennis Association (ATA) national championship in 1946 and were astounded by her natural, yet combustible, ability.

Here, they thought, might be their Jackie Robinson – an athlete who could break down the racial barriers in tennis just like the Harlem-based Brooklyn Dodgers star was doing in baseball.

While excited by her talent, they felt her lack of education and discipline would hamper her progress. So they concocted a plan: she would live and train with Dr Eaton, the chief surgeon at the African-American hospital in Wilmington, North Carolina, during the school year, then stay with Dr Johnson in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the summer.

“Both Dr Eaton and Dr Johnson were what you referred to then as ‘racemen’,” Miller says.

“Both were civil rights organisers and they had a plan to create the first black tennis champion. Althea was their charge.”

“Shaking hands with the Queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the coloured section of the bus going into downtown Wilmington.”

Racial segregation in the United States stopped black Americans mixing with their white counterparts across several lines, including education, employment and transportation.

The divide also existed in tennis. Black players were not allowed to compete in the US National Championships, instead forming the ATA and holding their own tournament.

Gibson, who graduated from high school aged 18 and later went on to study at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University on a sports scholarship in her 20s, won 10 straight ATA national titles between 1947 and 1956.

“It was just normal. We weren’t allowed to play in white tournaments, and that’s how it had been since the start of the 20th Century,” remembers Davis, another Harlem-raised kid who became Gibson’s hitting partner in the mid-50s when they were both guided by renowned coach Sydney Llewellyn.

“We didn’t feel particularly troubled by it. That’s just the way it was and we played among ourselves.”

That changed in 1950 when reigning national champion Alice Marble wrote a scathing magazine article challenging the USTA’s stance.

Gibson, pictured here with Marble at Forest Hills in 1950, went on to win five Grand Slam singles titles – the French Open (1956), Wimbledon (1957, 1958) and the US Open (1957, 1958)

“The question I’m most frequently expected to answer is whether Althea Gibson will be permitted to play in the nationals this year,” Marble wrote.

“When I directed the question to a committee member of long standing he answered in the negative: ‘Ms Gibson will not be permitted to play and it will be the reluctant duty of the committee to reject her entry.’

“I think it is time we faced a few facts. If tennis is a game for ladies and gentleman, it is time we acted a little more like gentle people and less like sanctimonious hypocrites.”

The white powerbrokers retreated under increasing pressure and allowed Gibson to play at Forest Hills. Finally she was able to do what she had been yearning: to test herself against the world’s best players regardless of colour.

“Alice Marble’s letter was a turning point,” Davis says. “It said things we couldn’t say.

“People would not hear us if we were to say it, but coming from a prominent world-class athlete like her it carried a lot of weight.

“I believe Alice’s letter also opened the doors to the other Grand Slams and enabled Althea to win them.”

“They kept telling me I said: ‘At last! At last!'”

Perched on the top of the Forest Hills stadium in Queens are 11 stone eagles.

At the former home of the US Open, one was struck by lightning and sent crashing, smashing to the floor.

Unfortunately for Gibson, this incident ruined her maiden appearance at the national championships. It proved symbolic.

Blocking out racial taunts, she appeared on course to beat Louise Brough, then ranked as the world’s best female player, in their second-round match.

Suddenly, the sky turned apocalyptic.

Startling sun was replaced by a torrential thunderstorm, and the demise of the ornamental eagle led to play being called off for the day.

When they returned the following morning, Gibson could not regain her momentum and she lost the match.

“It was as if the tennis gods were saying this can’t happen, we’ve got to do something to stop this match,” Leslie Allen, a former world number 17 who in 1981 became the first African-American woman to win a major tournament since Gibson, said in Miller’s 2014 film.

Eventually, nothing would stop Gibson proving, categorically and at last, that she was the world’s best.

The landmark moment arrived in 1956. She became the first black player to win a Grand Slam title with victory at the French Championships.

She would dominate the women’s game over the next three years, reaching 14 Grand Slam finals – seven singles and seven doubles.

The most eye-catching of her 10 victories came in the 1957 Wimbledon final.

Landing the most prestigious tennis prize on the planet finally introduced her talent to a wider audience across the Atlantic, many of whom had previously had been reluctant to acknowledge it.

Now, here was a sharecropper’s daughter, raised on the tough streets of Harlem, shaking hands with the Queen.

Gibson was presented with the Venus Rosewater Dish by Queen Elizabeth II when she won Wimbledon in 1957

It was a seminal moment. One which few African-Americans thought they would see. Arriving back in New York, Gibson sat on the back of an open-top car, waved and blew kisses as an estimated 100,000 people lined up along Broadway to mark her achievement.

Yet that adulation did not last.

Gibson drifted out of the sport, but never too far from the limelight. Her sultry voice saw her front an album called Althea Gibson Sings, she acted alongside Hollywood star John Wayne in a western, and later became the first black woman to play on the professional golf tour.

Despite this, she became a name lost to the generations which followed.

On the street where she grew up in Harlem, the few people milling about on a quiet Thursday afternoon – two elderly residents returning home from the grocery store, workers at a New York City Housing Authority office, a middle-aged man delivering leaflets – do not even know her name.

“There were many years lost in recognising who she was, what she accomplished, what she overcame,” Katrina Adams, the USTA’s first black president, who describes Gibson as her “shero”, tells BBC Sport.

“But I also think, particularly in America, we weren’t ready to put our African-American players on a pedestal and revere them like we are today. Timing is everything.

“It is unfortunate because someone like Althea, for what she accomplished, never got the notoriety she deserved while she was living.”

“Being the Queen of Tennis is all well and good – but you can’t eat a crown, nor can you send the Internal Revenue Service a throne clipped to their tax forms. The landlord and grocer and tax collector are funny that way: they like cold cash…”

Like Gibson, Angela Buxton was an outsider in the tennis world.

Having experienced anti-Semitism throughout her career, the Briton player says she too had paths blocked by those in power, and also suffered the same unfriendliness from other female players.

“Althea took to me because I was a loner as well. She felt we had something in common,” Buxton, now 85 and living in Greater Manchester, remembers.

“She wasn’t awfully appealing in a friendly way. Nobody had taught her growing up, how to act or how to behave.

“She used to aggravate people, but for some reason or another she didn’t aggravate me, I used to laugh when she said something naughty or rude.

“The discrimination Althea and I both faced brought us together initially and was a bond between us – but we never talked about it.”

Aside from tennis, a mutual fondness for films and salt beef sandwiches cemented their friendship and resulted in a doubles partnership which claimed the French Championships and Wimbledon titles in 1956.

“Rather than sitting around doing nothing, we decided to play doubles. I asked her and she said: ‘No-one has ever asked me before – of course I will.’

“We played and were much much better than anyone else. We won easily.

“We weren’t trying to prove a point. In hindsight, there was some history-making there – in being outsiders, joining forces and beating everybody.

“I can see it now quite clearly, but we didn’t then.”

The burgeoning partnership did not last long. Buxton suffered a debilitating wrist injury, which forced her retirement a year later.

Gibson, disillusioned because she felt her success had not completely destroyed the colour barrier in tennis, also retired shortly after her second Wimbledon singles win in 1958, with her finances in a parlous state.

A far cry from the riches of today’s game, where the 11 highest-earning sportswomen over the past year are all tennis players, Gibson earned little money in the days before the professional era.

“There was no money in the game, and she had no money to start with, so she was in a very difficult position,” Buxton says.

“She didn’t look after money well. If she had money she would spend it.

“Nobody had explained to her what you’re supposed to do with money; that you’re not supposed to spend it all in one go.”

Angela Buxton and Althea Gibson combined to win the Wimbledon doubles title in 1956

For years the pair had little contact. Then, in 1995, from a basic, rented flat in Orange, New Jersey, Gibson made a call to Buxton. She called to say goodbye.

“She hadn’t got the money to pay for rent, for food or for medication. She wasn’t well and she didn’t know where any more money was going to come in,” Buxton said.

“So she said she was going away. I asked ‘where?’ She was going to do herself in.”

Buxton convinced her friend suicide was not the route to take, reassuring Gibson that she would send her enough money – about $1,500 – to cover that month’s expenses.

“I sent her the money but didn’t intend to send it forever. I intended to do something, but on the spur of the moment I didn’t know what,” Buxton says.

Eventually she came up with a plan. With the help of a journalist friend, she wrote to the prestigious Tennis Week magazine and asked them to print a letter outlining Gibson’s predicament.

And then… they heard nothing.

“It was very strange. But five months later, out of the blue, I got a call from an American woman playing at Forest Hills. She had seen it on page three – letters to the editor – and said she would like to help.

“Then money started flowing in from all over the world.”

After initially denying knowing anything about the letters which packed Gibson’s mailbox, Buxton felt guilty about misleading her friend and revealed all. Gibson intuitively already knew.

With Buxton already set to be in New York for that year’s US Open, the pair spent almost the whole two weeks sitting around the coffee table at Gibson’s home opening all the post.

In all types of currencies, there was close to a million dollars.

Not only did the money allow Gibson to survive, Buxton says it allowed her to make two final lavish purchases: a new Cadillac car and a large television so she could pass the time watching sport.

Buxton claims a number of high-profile tennis stars ignored Gibson’s pleas for financial help before her intervention, which she believes gave the American “another eight years of life” before she died in 2003, having suffered from deteriorating respiratory problems.

What would Gibson say if she could see a life-size monument of herself being unveiled at the home of the USTA – 70 years after she was not even allowed to play at the US Open? Buxton takes barely a second to think before answering.

“Oh, she would probably say it is about time too. Because she wasn’t against blowing her own trumpet. Finally other people are doing it for her.”

US Open 2019
Venue: Flushing Meadows, New York Dates: 26 Aug – 8 Sep
Coverage: Live text and radio commentary on selected matches on the BBC Sport website and app
Key: 1: Statue to be unveiled of Althea Gibson at the USTA National Tennis Center. 2: Althea Gibson’s former home in Harlem. 3: The Cosmopolitan Club – a now defunct tennis club where Gibson played, also in Harlem. 4. West Side Tennis Club, in Forest Hills in Queens
Gibson relishing the moment as she is feted on her return to New York after winning Wimbledon in July 1957
The street where Gibson grew up in Harlem
John Wayne, William Holden, Althea Gibson and Constance Towers on the set of The Horse Soldier, directed by John Ford
Serena and Coco’s inspiration

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