Remembering the African American godmother of tennis: Althea Gibson 1927-2003.
This year, Serena, who made it to the Wimbledon final, was defeated by a Russian teenager, Maria Sharapova. Serena's loss ended the Williams sisters' four-year reign of overpowering other Wimbledon players. However, the first black person--male or female--to actually win at Wimbledon was Althea Gibson, who won both the singles and doubles titles at Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958, respectively. Thanks to her trailblazing efforts, hundreds of black tennis players have followed. The list includes Arthur Ashe, Zina Garrison, Malivai Washington, The Williams sisters, Chanda Rubin, James Blake, and others. In addition to these top-tier players, there are thousands of junior and amateur players throughout the country who are vying for a chance to be No. 1. As is well known in black sports history, Gibson was the first African American of either sex to break the color barrier in both national and international tennis tournaments at a time when prejudice and racism were pervasive. In 1951, she was the first African American invited to enter the all-English tournament at Wimbledon. She won the French Open in 1956.
Althea Gibson died last year, on September 28, 2003. This year, BLACK ENTERPRISE pays tribute to her efforts in the world of tennis by recognizing her first win at Wimbledon as published in the upcoming book Born to Win: The Authorized Biography of Althea Gibson, by Frances Clayton Gray and Yanick Rice Lamb (John Wiley & Sons; $24.95). A pioneer and trailblazer, we remember Althea Gibson.
Wimbledon was Althea's primary focus in 1957. She would go in fresh--not "overtennised." She would compete in only a few tournaments and only on grass; she wouldn't even defend her French title on the composition courts of Roland Garros Stadium. The ATA gave her a bun voyage party at Birdland, where she hobnobbed with more than 300 well-wishers, including Sammy Davis Jr., who played around with her on the piano. This time, the USLTA was paying her way to Wimbledon. Sydney Llewellyn drove her to Idlewild airport, and Buddy Walker came along for the ride Edna Mae Robinson, who met them there, tucked $20 into Althea's hand as they said good bye. Althea had checked her two bags, but she took her three tennis rackets with her an the Pan American Stratocruiser. "I didn't want anything to happen to them." Angela Buxton, who had invited Althea to stay at her flat in Paddington, was waiting with a friend when the plane landed in England. Buxton wouldn't be Althea's doubles partner at Wimbledon this year since she had sprained her wrist. Instead, she'd be broadcasting the matches on television. With the exception of the Queen's Club Tournament, Althea competed in all the Wimbledon warm-ups, capturing all the singles titles. "I was ruthless on the tennis court. Win at any cost. I became an attacker. If your first serve ain't good, VII knock it down your throat. It just so happened that I had the talent to win at another level instead of being the meanie on the tennis court."
"You got to know your opponent," she added. "You got to know their strengths, their weaknesses, see hew they move, what balls they don't like. Once I know this, they'd only see the ball at their weak points, not their strengths."
Confident that she'd take home the Wimbledon crown, Althea picked out an evening gown for the ball and wrote an acceptance speech Her opening match at Wimbledon was a tough one against Suzy Kormoczy of Hungary, but she won, 6-4, 6-4. In the semifinals, she defeated a local favorite, 16-year-old six-footer Christine Truman. "I was pretty excited. It was quite a feeling to be a Wimbledon finalist." Althea didn't let arty of the catcalls and jeering raze her. "I'll mess them up on the court, and then the joke will be on them," she responded. In a jubilant mood, Althea met up with two friends from the ATA, Katherine Landry and Dorothy Parks, both WAC captains in Germany, who were on leave to support her at the tournament. They reminisced over filet mignon and sherry at Le Couple, a French restaurant that Althea loved to visit when she was in London. She opted against hanging out later with them so that she could rest up for her big day.
July 6, 1957, was shaping up to be a unique day--sultry with heat and all abuzz since Queen Elizabeth II would be making her first visit to Wimbledon. The monarch usually opted for horse races over tennis matches. A spectator took advantage of her presence by approaching the royal box and displaying a banner about protecting the queen from warmongers. The queen simply smiled as a police officer and referee escorted the woman out of the area.
With the temperature hovering around 100 degrees, Wimbledon set a record for 1,071 fainting spells during the two-week tournament It was the kind of heat that can make a tennis player have an off day, but Althea welcomed it. "There is something about a hot, still day that brings out the best in your shots," Althea said. "The sweat seems to loosen your muscles and perfect your aim." It appeared to be working, as Althea won the first set. against Darlene Hard, a perky 21-year-old from Montebello, California, who had upset Louise Brough in the quarterfinals. "When I rushed the net, I got the volley. When I stayed in the backcourt and Darlene charged the net, I hit past her."
"At last! At last!" Althea exclaimed as play came to an end with the score at 5-3, 6-2 She was officially the queen of tennis with a Wimbledon singles title to prove it--the first black champion in the tournament's 80-year history. As workers unfurled a green carpet, she waited with Hard by the trophy table. The two players stood at attention as the queen and three attendants walked onto the court and then they curtsied "My congratulations; it must have been terribly hot out there," Queen Elizabeth said after shaking Althea's hand. "Yes, Your Majesty, but I hope it wasn't as hot in your box," Althea replied. "At least, I was able to stir up a breeze."
The smiling monarch wore a rose and white printed silk dress with pearls, gloves, a pale pink hat with a red band, and white open-toe shoes with a matching purse. "The queen had a wonderful speaking voice, and she looked exactly as a queen ought to look, except more beautiful than you would expect any real-life queen to look." Althea clenched her jaw to fight back tears as she accepted the 28-inch gold salver adorned with bas-relief images of women athletes and engraved with the names of past champions. Althea was honored that she was the first Wimbledon winner to receive an award from Queen Elizabeth and one of only a few to have an award presented by any queen. "Shaking hands with the queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus," Althea pointed out.
Alice Marble noted the change in the woman on whose behalf she wrote the scathing open letter to her peers in the tennis community nearly a decade earlier. "It looks as though Althea has more confidence," Marble said. "That was half her battle. She had worlds of ability. But she was scared,"
"I have been told that all I have to do to become the greatest woman tennis player in history is to conquer myself," Althea said. "I think I've finally learned how not to beat myself."
"Winning this title is the greatest thrill since I started playing tennis," she added. 'Tin not going to be satisfied, however, until I win at Forest Hills," In addition to her singles title at Wimbledon, she won doubles with Hard, 6-1, 6-2, but missed having a Triple Crown when she and her mixed-doubles partner, Neale Fraser of Australia, lost to Hard and Australian Mervyn Rose, 6-4, 7-5.
When Althea arrived at the ball that night, the crowd on the sidewalk applauded, Those inside stood and did the same as she took her seat at the head table between the duke of Devonshire and her counterpart, Lew Hoad. the men's singles champion from Australia. After Head made his speech, she delivered hers, termed a spellbinder by some. She opened the three-and-a-half page acceptance speech, written in green ink on onionskin paper, and told the crowd: "In the words of your own distinguished Mr. Churchill, this is my finest hour. This is the hour I will remember always as the crowning conclusion to a long and wonderful journey." She noted that her award belonged to many and she singled out Buddy Walker, Fred Johnson, Doctors Johnson and Eaton, Llewellyn, Buxton, the ATA, and the USLTA. "And finally," she said, "this victory is a sincere thank you to the many good people in England and around the world whose written and spoken expressions of encouragement, faith, and hope, I have tried to justify." She concluded by focusing on the responsibilities of the crown, calling it a "total victory of many nations" and a "collective victory of many champions."
"God grant that I may wear it with dignity, defend it with honor, and when my day is done, relinquish it graciously. I thank you."
As the band played "April Showers," she danced with Head and even the duke. Ham and Vic Seixas coaxed her into singing a few numbers, so she obliged with "If I Loved You" and "Around the World." The celebration continued at the Astor Club on the West Side, where Althea repeated the tunes, prompting the manager, Bertie Green, to extend an open invitation and the bandleader to tell her that she was welcome to sing with the group at any time.
On her arrival back on U.S. soil, Althea was kept behind on the Pan Am Clipper as other passengers disembarked to ensure clear shots of the new queen as she descended the stairs and walked across the red carpet, The three people who bid her bon voyage when she departed on her transatlantic flight had been joined by a throng for her return, which had been delayed by an hour and a half, "Quite a difference from the day I left," she noted, As soon as Althea saw her mother, she exclaimed "Hi ya, Sweetie Pie!" and rushed to give her a hug and kiss "It made me feel good right down to the tips of my toes to see Morn so happy." Millie, Bubba, Will, and her first coach, Fred Johnson, were there, too. Edna Mae pinned an orchid on her, while Buddy gave her a cigarette lighter that played "La Vie En Rose" symbolizing her love of Paris.
A police escort led Althea and city officials from the airport to a breakfast celebration at Bertram Baker's house and then to her childhood home in Harlem. When the Cadillac pulled in front of her doorstep, her neighbors an 143rd Street cheered as soon as they caught a glimpse of her. Her father leaned out of their third-floor window, waving and yelling. A self-appointed spokesman holding up a black dog told her, "I just want to tell you how grateful we all are and my dog, Blackie, is." Ten-year-old Anthony Hunter's statement drew laughter from the crowd. "It meant a lot to me to have all those people come out of their tired old apartment houses up and down 143rd Street to tell me how glad they were that one of the neighbor's children had gone out into the world and done something big."
It was a big deal all over the world but especially in communities like Harlem. Winning Wimbledon was akin to winning the White House as far as many black Americans were concerned. "Some people just don't know what that means and what it meant to us then," explained L. Garnell Stamps, who used to peek through the fence around Dr. Johnson's tennis court in Lynchburg, Virginia, to watch Althea practice. "That's the world championship of all tennis--the greatest tennis player in the world, and the Queen of England was there to see it!"
"At that time, we didn't have people who could run for president of the United States," added Stamps, who later interviewed Althea for viewpoint, a public affairs program sponsored by the NAACP chapter in Lynchburg. "We did not have many nationally known people. There were a few in the arenas and on the field of play and in other things. We had to look up to those."
So black America insisted on a celebration befitting the newly crowned queen. In fact, James L. Hicks, a prominent columnist for the New York Amsterdam News, claimed that his paper worked behind the scenes to push for a ticker-tape parade so that the Queen of Tennis could greet her public. Leaders at the black weekly talked city officials into granting a parade for Althea, Hicks said, after a mayoral aide insisted that only heads of state were worthy of such recognition. The paper refuted the aide's claim by providing records on parades for Charles Lindbergh, General Douglas MacArthur, and others. At that point, the track star Jesse Owens was the only other black American to have been so honored and that was in 1936 when he literally ran down Hilter's claims of Aryan superiority by winning four gold medals at the Olympics in Berlin. Althea's supporters felt it was long past time for another black hero to parade down the Canyon of Champions, and they prevailed in their push for a parade.
At noon the day after Althea's homecoming, mounted police led the tickertape parade up Broadway from the Battery to City Hail. The procession included Army, Air Force, and Coast Guard color guards as well as bands from the fire department and the U.S. Third Naval District. Sitting along the back headrest of an eggshell-colored imperial convertible was Althea in a silk dress with red and blue checks and a white orchid at her shoulder. Over and over again, she exclaimed: "It's amazing! It's wonderful!" as she waved and blew kisses to the cheering crowd. Bertram Baker of the ATA; Manhattan Borough President Hulan Jack; and Richard Patterson, the commissioner of the Department of Commerce and Public Events, rode with her in the car, while her family followed in vehicles behind them as strips of paper and confetti rained on them. "This is the proudest day of my life," Dush Gibson said. His wife agreed. "VII never forget that tickertape parade up Broadway and the way all those thousands of people cheered our girl," she said. "That was just the most wonderful thing that ever happened."
It was said that the parade was larger than those held for the Prince of Wales, Lindbergh, MacArthur, and Owens....
The telegrams and letters kept coming with all sorts of stamps, on all sorts of paper, in all sorts of languages, from all sorts of people. President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote in part: "Recognizing the odds you faced, we have applauded your courage, persistence, and energy. We are most proud of you."
Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Born to Win: The Authorized Biography of Althea Gibson. Copyright @ 2004 by Frances Clayton Gray and Yanick Rice Lamb. This book is available at all bookstores, online booksellers, and from the Wiley Website at www.wiley.com or 800-CALL-WILEY.
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|Title Annotation:||Book Excerpt|
|Author:||Lamb, Yanick Rice|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2004|
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