There wasn’t much hope for sharecropping families in the run-up to the Great Depression. It was a hard life filled with backbreaking physical labor and seemingly interminable, generational poverty. So there wasn’t any reason to suspect the child who arrived to a sharecropping couple in Silver, South Carolina – an unincorporated area of Clarendon County – ninety-six years ago this month would break the cycle. Certainly, there was no hint she would make history, break barriers and leave a string of shattered records in her wake.
Daniel and Annie Bell Gibson named their daughter Althea. When she was a toddler, the Depression arrived in force, making a bad situation even worse for sharecroppers. In desperation, her parents took her and headed north in what came to be called the Great Migration. Like many relocated black families, they settled in Harlem and began putting down roots.
The apartment the Gibsons rented turned out to profoundly impact Althea Gibson’s future. It was located within a neighborhood selected as a Police Athletic League play area. Cops blocked off streets during the daytime so kids could participate in league sports.
Althea started off playing paddle tennis and quickly blossomed. By the age of twelve, she was the Big Apple’s city champion. She also made some bad choices. Dropping out of school at thirteen, she spent her days getting into street fights (local girls learned to be wary of her right hook) and hanging out in movie theaters. Fear of her father’s beatings drove her to a Catholic shelter for abused kids.
At that point, life could have gone a lot of different ways. But neighbors saw something in the Althea – a glimmer of promise lurking behind the rebellious teenage façade. So they chipped in (no small feat for people living dangerously close to poverty) and paid for a year’s tennis lessons at a private club.
The angry adolescent despised the game at first. She preferred to compete with her fists, wanting to beat her opponents whenever she lost a match. But she entered — and won — her first tournament. Slowly, her life and personality began changing as she dove deeper into the sport.
Under a mentor’s supervision, Althea moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, and resumed her education while also perfecting her game. She eventually won a full scholarship to Florida A&M and even joined a sorority.
Her education completed, Althea began playing tennis full-time – and the sport would never be the same. It was difficult on occasion, with racial segregation making its last stand. But as fellow tennis legend Billie Jean King said, “I never saw her back down.”
By the time her playing days were over, Althea was certified tennis royalty. The first black woman to win a Grand Slam title, she won the French Championships (later known as the French Open) in 1956 and then won Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals (the forerunner of today’s U.S. Open) in 1957. She won both tournaments again the following year – and added multiple doubles and mixed doubles titles to her resume.
One of those doubles titles Gibson won with fellow American Darlene Hard – whom she defeated for the singles crown. Gibson and Hard got to meet the queen following their triumph!
The Associated Press named Gibson its female athlete of the year in 1957 and 1958. There was even a ticker-tape parade in New York City thrown in along the way. When all was said and done, she had racked up 11 Grand Slam titles. More than that, she was a transformational figure. Althea Gibson did to tennis what Jackie Robison had done to baseball; she changed the game forever.
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Gibson’s pioneering days weren’t over, though. In 1964 she traded her racket for golf clubs and became the first black woman to play on the WPGA Tour. She finished in the money – evening winning a new car in one tourney.
Success in sports didn’t automatically translate into financial wealth back then, especially for a black woman athlete.
“Being the Queen of Tennis is all well and good, but you can’t eat a crown,” she would write later. “Nor can you send the Internal Revenue Service a throne clipped to their tax form. The landlord and grocer and tax collector are funny that way: They like cold cash.”
Still driven by her fighting spirit, Althea turned her attention to different fields. A talented saxophonist and singer, she gave music a try. A record album flopped. Attempts at an acting career proved equally unsuccessful. She had a supporting role in John Wayne’s 1959 Civil War classic “The Horse Soldiers,” playing a slave named Lukey (and refusing to talk in the script’s cheesy dialect).
There were a few major TV show appearances — Ed Sullivan and “What’s My Line?” among them — but entertainment didn’t pan out. There were also two failed marriages, a failed run for public office, a string of minor (very minor) product endorsements, and TV sports commentary gigs.
The woman who had won Wimbledon wound up managing East Orange, New Jersey’s recreation department.
The end came slowly and painfully. Two cerebral hemorrhages led to a stroke and a veritable mountain of medical bills. Just as had happened in her youth, friends rallied and raised $1 million in donations from all over the world. A heart attack and more ailments followed until her body finally gave out in 2003.
While her legacy has been largely forgotten outside the sport she grew to love (and to dominate), the trails Gibson blazed have remained. And been trodden by other famous athletes. After all, there would have been no Serena and Venus Williams had Althea Gibson not arrived on that blistering hot Thursday on a Clarendon County cotton farm back in August 1927. And had those around her not seen greatness in her … and given of themselves to help her achieve it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
J. Mark Powell is an award-winning former TV journalist, government communications veteran, and a political consultant. He is also an author and an avid Civil War enthusiast. Got a tip or a story idea for Mark? Email him at [email protected].
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