Thursday, August 22, 2013

Today in Herstory - Althea Gibson

On August 22, 1950, Althea Gibson made history simply by walking out onto a tennis court.

But it really wasn't that simple. Nothing really ever is, right? Prior to 1950, the national championship events were for whites only. Which meant that young tennis genius Althea Gibson could not compete on a national level, and could not progress in the sport she was so very talented at.
"I knew that I was an unusual, talented girl, through the grace of God. I didn't need to prove that to myself. I only wanted to prove it to my opponents."
Althea Gibson came to tennis later than most who pursued a professional career. But she was a natural, and quickly rose in the ranks of her local tennis circle. In fact, she was so good and so well loved by her community that in 1940 they took up a collection to pay for a junior membership and lessons at the prestigious Cosmopolitan Tennis Club.

With their support and the excellent training she received, she continued to advance, winning tournament after tournament.
In 1941 she entered — and won — her first tournament, the American Tennis Association (ATA) New York State Championship. She won the ATA national championship in the girls' division in 1944 and 1945, and after losing in the women's final in 1946, she won her first of ten straight national ATA women's titles in 1947.
(Source: wikipedia)
And she went on winning. And getting more attention from people in the position to help her. Dr. Walter Johnson, a Virginia physician and patron of the African American tennis community, took her under his wing and mentored her as she continued to excel. Dr. Hubert A. Eaton, another physician and tennis aficionado, sponsored her move to Wilmington, North Carolina, where she attended Williston High School and continued to play tennis and improve her skill. In fact, her skill was so impressive that while she was only ever a mediocre student, she was awarded a full athletic scholarship at Florida A&M.

In 1949, she became the first black woman to play in the USTA's National Indoor Championships. While this was an exciting event, it was also one of the few high level events she was able to enter. Because of the color barrier, her options for advancement in her sport were becoming ever fewer. That same year, she petitioned to enter the USLTA's National Grass Court Championships at Forest Hills and was denied. It was still a white-only event, and while she had the skill to compete, she did not have the privilege.
The next step proved harder. Even after she had won the 1950 Eastern Indoor Championship and a clamor had begun to let her play in the National Grass Court Championships at Forest Hills, the precursor of the United States Open, the powers of tennis seemed to close ranks to keep her out.

To qualify for an invitation to the 1950 nationals, she was required to first make a name for herself at one of the major preliminary grass-court events. But no invitations were forthcoming.
(Source: New York Times)
And here's where something remarkable happened. Alice Marble, a former tennis champion herself, wrote an open letter in the American Lawn Tennis magazine, calling out the powers that be that were keeping Althea Gibson and other African Americans off their courts.
"Miss Gibson is over a very cunningly wrought barrel, and I can only hope to loosen a few of its staves with one lone opinion. 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 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."

Marble said that, if Gibson were not given the opportunity to compete, "then there is an ineradicable mark against a game to which I have devoted most of my life, and I would be bitterly ashamed."
(Source: wikipedia)
Althea Gibson and Alice Marble walking to the outer court where Gibson's first match was scheduled. (Source:
In response to the attention this letter garnered, Althea finally received an invitation to compete in the United States National Championships (now the U.S. Open) at Forest Hills. On August 22, 1950, Althea became the first African American to be named on a National Grass Court Championship roster. Her first match was on her 23rd birthday, August 25.

She did not win the championship. She lost in the second round to Louise Brough, the reigning Wimbledon champion, but her presence on the court brought national, and international, coverage.
But it was Gibson's second-round match against three-time Wimbledon champion Louise Brough that showed everyone Gibson was a future champion. Gibson led Brough 1-6, 6-3, 7-6, needing just one game to win the match, when along came a storm so severe lightning knocked a cement eagle from atop the stadium. Brough won the match upon its conclusion the next day.

But, Gibson said later of that day, "When lightning put down that eagle, maybe it was an omen that times was changing."
(Source: USAT)
And the times were changing.
"No Negro player, man or woman, has ever set foot on one of these courts," wrote journalist Lester Rodney at the time. "In many ways, it [was] even a tougher personal Jim Crow-busting assignment than was Jackie Robinson's when he first stepped out of the Brooklyn Dodgers dugout."
(Source: wikipedia)
Althea Gibson's full career deserves a longer, more in-depth telling. But I wanted to give a little more attention to this one moment in time in her career. It should get more than a just quick paragraph in her longer biology. It cannot have been as simple as having one famous tennis star stand up for her. While that one act played an important role in her professional advancement, it was Althea herself who put in the work and applied her talents to place herself in the position of gaining the attention of her mentors, her sponsors and patrons, and eventually Alice Marble.

It was Althea who had to show up on the court and play excellent tennis. There is no record of how she was received at Forest Hills, but I cannot help but wonder how one would prepare for that moment. Especially after having seen the reception Jackie Robinson was given.

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