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The Street Has Her Name: Althea Gibson continues to show us the way
The first Black player to win a Grand Slam title was recognized in Harlem on what would have been her 95th birthday, but there is still more to be done.
Published Aug 27, 2022
NEW YORK—A normally quiet corner of Harlem erupted in drumrolls and song on Thursday as it was rechristened in honor of one of the nation's most formidable African-American tennis players.
She is a woman known for her volcanic strokes and crushing serve. Raised in poverty in one of the nation's toughest neighborhoods, she battled her way to international stardom by her twenties. Her reputation mushroomed not just due to those achievements but because of her distinct tennis outfits and sometimes temperamental court behavior. She once angrily slammed a ball into a packed grandstand and narrowly missed hitting a head of state.
No, she is not Serena Williams, but her achievements more than half a century ago made Serena's possible today. She is Althea Gibson, the first Black woman to play in what is now called the US Open; the first to win one of the Grand Slam tournaments, in 1956; and the first to be ranked No. 1 in the world.
Although often called the Jackie Robinson of tennis—a reference she heartily disliked—Gibson had a far harder road to travel than the pioneering second baseman. Not only was she Black, she was a woman who had neither a team of players to back her up nor a personality that always charmed.
While there are many today who do not know Gibson's name, organizers hope the event and several others in the pipeline will begin to change that. The renaming of 143rd St. in Harlem to be Althea Gibson Way, which coincided with Gibson's 95th birthday, brought together more than a few who well knew the towering athlete.
“Somebody had to be the first,” declared Rev. Jacques A. DeGraff, a relative of Gibson's. “Someone had to go through the door. Someone had to face the bigotry and discrimination. Let's say her name.”
“Althea,” the crowd of nearly 200 people shouted. “Gibson.”
“Althea,” they shouted again. “Gibson.”
DeGraff stood in front of the building in which Gibson grew up in a crowded third-floor apartment. It was on the busy street out front of the building, cordoned off by police in the 1930s so that children could play safely, where Gibson first learned to wield a racquet.
Largely overlooked in recent decades, Gibson is now beginning to get her due, as are many other accomplished African-American women in the nation’s past. In addition to the street renaming, a life-size statue of Gibson proposed to be permanently located near the block is in the works. Later in the afternoon, Gibson was honored at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens during an event called the Divine Nine, a celebration of sororities and fraternities at the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Nearly a dozen representatives of Alpha Kappa Alpha, which Gibson was a member of, executed a dance performance in tribute to her clad in the sorority's pink and green colors.
There's more in the works for Gibson, who died in 2003. The West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, the once exclusive tennis club where Gibson broke the color barrier in 1950 when she competed in the U.S. Nationals in the face of racist cat calls and a raging thunderstorm, intends to honor Gibson at a celebration of its stadium Centennial next year. So, too, the U.S. Mint is taking steps to possibly issue a quarter bearing Gibson's likeness in 2025. and has contacted Gibson family members about the project.
They are fitting tributes to a remarkable life that began in the face of substantial adversity. Gibson migrated to Harlem from South Carolina as a toddler in 1929, arriving shortly before the crash of the American stock market. As her family grappled with poverty, Gibson spent much of her childhood roaming the streets shoplifting and fighting with street gangs. It was just luck that the Police Athletic League decided to cordon off her street in 1937 and put up a paddle tennis court on which Gibson, a prodigious athlete even in her younger years, fast became the city champion. She soon migrated to the Cosmopolitan Club, the tennis club where Harlem's most prosperous professionals played, and won ten successive national titles in the Black American Tennis Association, a record that still stands today.
The combative Gibson, who in her early days sometimes hit her opponent with a speeding ball, developed a reputation for her competitiveness early on. Roger Terry, whose uncle was Gibson's husband, recalled that when he was young she routinely beat him and his friends playing football and baseball.
“That was an embarrassment as a young man to let this big strong woman beat us in all these different sports,” said Terry. “She did not like to lose either. She was a tremendous competitor. If you played her in pinochle, there was an argument before the game was over if she was going to lose.”
The intensely competitive Gibson excelled at many other sports as well, and she was the fastest member of the Mysterious Girls, a prize-winning Harlem basketball team. When she was introduced to tennis in her teens, even Gibson, hardened by life on the streets, wondered if she was a good fit for the then predominantly white sport.
“I really wasn't the tennis type,” Gibson wrote in her autobiography. “I kept wanting to fight the other player every time I started to lose a match.”
Gibson struggled to make her way in tennis in the first half of the fifties and even considered abandoning it altogether. But by the later part of the decade she hit her stride. Gibson won both the singles and doubles at the French Open in 1956, the first Black person to do so, and went on to win both Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals in 1957 and both again in 1958. By the decade’s end she had won a total of 11 Grand Slam titles—five singles titles, five doubles titles and one mixed—and was ranked as the top women’s player in the world. For the intensely competitive Gibson, however, even that wasn’t enough. In 1964 she broke the color barrier in golf and became the first Black woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
“It's an honor to be here to witness something that is long overdue,” said Katrina Adams, a former professional tennis player and the first Black person to serve as president of the U.S.T.A. “Althea was a she-hero of mine.”
Serena at her best was probably the best ever, but she had a lot of bad losses, 55 losses in all in the majors. I don’t think Althea would have lost to all the women Serena lost to. Tennis historian Richard A. Hillway
The events in Gibson's honor come just days before Serena Williams, who was the first Black woman to win a Grand Slam title after Gibson, is to make what is likely her final appearance on the professional circuit at the US Open starting next week. Serena and her sister Venus both admired Gibson in their younger years. Serena faxed Gibson a list of questions related to a high school project she was working on in 1999, and the sisters used an image of Gibson on the back of a Black History newsletter they produced.
In the fiercely competitive world of women's tennis, one question that arises—and is nearly impossible to answer—is who would have won in a face-off between the twin powerhouses of Gibson and Serena Williams. Much about tennis has changed since Gibson played in the 1950s, including the composition of both racquet and court surfaces making the game both faster and more powerful than it was 70 years ago. Tennis historian Richard A. Hillway believes that if Gibson had some of the same advantages that Serena had, such as better racquets and strings, and tremendous parental support, she might well have held her own. While Serena has more sheer power, Hillway believes Gibson was the better volleyer.
“Serena at her best was probably the best ever, but she had a lot of bad losses, 55 losses in all in the majors,” said Hillway, co-author of The Birth of Lawn Tennis: From the Origins of The Game to the First Championship at Wimbledon. “I don’t think Althea would have lost to all the women Serena lost to. Althea was a smooth athlete not a powerhouse like Serena. In fact, Althea was likely the superior athlete as she excelled not only in tennis but in golf and basketball as well.”
For all her immense skill, Gibson never received anything close to the kind of financial rewards that today’s tennis stars routinely pull in. In the years after she retired from amateur tennis, which forbade cash prizes before the Open Era began in 1968, Gibson struggled to support herself by making exhibition appearances with the Harlem Globetrotters and working as a community representative for a national baking company. Perhaps even more embittering for Gibson in her post-tennis years was that there were so few Black players to follow in her wake, and none to even come close to her achievement until Arthur Ashe won the very first US Open, in 1968.
As Gibson wrote in her second memoir of her difficulties in landing lucrative contracts in the 1960s, “Suddenly it dawned on me that my triumphs had not destroyed the racial barriers once and for all, as I had—perhaps naively—hoped. Or if I did destroy them, they had been erected behind me again.”
Of all the tributes and accolades dedicated to Gibson at the day's events, it is likely that the words that would have meant the most to her were those spoken by nine-year-old Amanda James. A Harlem tennis player herself, James said that when she finds herself the only or one of a very few Black players at a tennis tournament she often thinks of who came before her.
“When I feel down, or like I want to give up, I remember that I stand on the shoulders of Althea Gibson and that I should keep persevering” said James. “I love Althea Gibson. Without Althea Gibson there would be none of us.”
Sally H. Jacobs is the author of the biography Althea: The Life of Tennis Champion Althea Gibson to be published by St. Martin's Press next year.