Most Americans are aware of the Jackie Robinson story and, subsequently, Larry Doby being the first African Americans to break the color barrier of Major League Baseball. We follow the paths of Marion Motley and Jim Brown in football, but when it comes to tennis, we have some very short memories.
When the words “African American” and “Tennis” are spoken, Arthur Ashe is the first name to come to mind. If the subject turns to the female color barrier in tennis, the names of the Williams sisters pop up. But long before Venus and Serena were born, there was a young woman from South Carolina who set the color barrier on its ear. This woman, Althea Gibson, got the attention of America by winning her first Grand Slam title in 1956.
For those who dismissed this as a fluke, she came back in 1957 and won Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals, the precursor to the U.S. Open. To quiet all doubters, she repeated this feat in 1958. For these achievements, the Associated Press named her Female Athlete of the Year as a reminder that she was a part of history.
There is a saying, “Every cloud has a silver lining.” This proved to be true for Althea. In 1930, her parents left South Carolina and moved to Harlem, taking up residence in an area of Harlem designated as a Police Athletic League play area. Althea quickly took to paddle tennis, and by 1939, at age 12, she was the NYC Paddle Tennis Champion. Her prowess in paddle tennis drew the attention of Walter Johnson, a Lynchburg, Va. physician. Dr. Johnson assumed the role of Gibson’s mentor, and later mentored Arthur Ashe.
During Gibson’s climb to success, Sam Lacy was assigned to cover her for the AFRO. They became fast friends and, if you recall, some of our adventures while at Dodgers spring training involved traveling a few hours to watch her play. It was on one of these jaunts to watch Gibson play that I even got the opportunity to ,among other things, meet Bernard Schwartz, who later became Tony Curtis.
In later years, after she retired from tennis, Sam kept in contact with Gibson. She was dealing with some health issues, but would always take Sam’s call. On one occasion, her sister answered the phone and apologized for Althea’s condition, telling Sam she wouldn’t be able to take his calls anymore. This was the first time I saw my pop display any sadness.
If you are wondering what set me off on this tangent, I was listening to a sports program on Aug. 25 and the commentator uttered, “Oh, by the way, today is the late Althea Gibson’s birthday.” That was it. No fanfare, no refresher, no nothing. As this year’s U.S. Open is underway, I felt that Althea was being treated as just another footnote.
If Jackie Robinson is mentioned, they report on everything but the color of his shorts on the day he broke the color barrier. Not to take away anything from Jackie’s accomplishments, but Althea’s accomplishments not only transcended continents, but she got to shake the hand of the Queen of England. Take that.