Althea Gibson: A Phenomenal Woman

I was describing my blog recently to a real estate client and mentioned I was working on a post about Althea Gibson.

“Who’s that?” she asked, then quickly apologized for not knowing.

I was momentarily stunned. Here we were in the middle of Black History Month, and this intelligent black mother of three, a graduate of Howard University, one of our top historically black colleges and universities, genuinely did not know about Althea Gibson.

althea
Althea Gibson

She was keenly aware of Serena and Venus Williams but had no clue about the woman who opened the door for the Williams sisters to achieve fame and fortune as world-class tennis players.

I was convinced the premise for this blogpost was on point – that Althea’s place in our history had become overshadowed by the magnificent success of Serena and Venus.

serena-and-venus-ao
Venus and Serena made history with their grand slam showdown in Australia.

As Black History Month closes, there is no better time to remind or enlighten folks about this remarkable woman who paved the way for the Williams sisters, for Arthur Ashe Jr. — the first and only African-American male to win a tennis Grand Slam — and for all the rest of us who play league tennis as members of the United States Tennis Association.

If you are unaware or need a refresher, a good start would be reading “Born to Win: The Authorized Biography of Althea Gibson” by Frances Clayton Gray and Yanick Rice Lamb.

Before I continue to pitch this wonderful account of Althea’s life, let me provide some highlights of why you should care.

Althea broke the tennis color barrier in 1950 when she played in the U.S. National Championships at Forest Hills, the forerunner to the U.S. Open. She was the first black to win a tennis Grand Slam title when she captured the French Open crown in 1956. A year later, she won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and repeated the back-to-back feat in 1958.

After becoming exasperated by the lack of financial reward from tennis, she turned to golf. In 1964, she was the first black accepted into the Ladies Professional Golf Association.

While Althea will be remembered for her accomplishments in tennis and golf, my takeaway from reading this book is she could have been a champion at whatever she chose to do. She was an extremely gifted athlete and multi-talented woman.

Midway through reading it, I found myself picturing Althea as the subject of Maya Angelou’s standout poems, “Still I rise” and “Phenomenal Woman.”

Althea’s rise from a raw and rebellious high school truant to college graduate to international ambassador for tennis to actress to recording artist who appeared on the Ed Sullivan show was nothing short of phenomenal.

The impact she had on other black women is revealed in the final chapters of the book. Former Women’s National Basketball Association star Cynthia Cooper wrote a play in Althea’s honor. Former Women’s Tennis Association standout Leslie Allen talks about how Althea’s coaching took her game to a higher level.

And Venus Williams writes in an afterword: “Although some of the challenges that she faced still exist, it’s much easier for all of us who have come after her. I am grateful to Althea Gibson for having the strength and courage to break through the racial barriers in tennis.”

Sadly, Althea’s final years were spent in seclusion, as she had become embittered by the fact she never accrued any fortune from her fame. Just months before she passed in September, 2003, a year before the book was published, friends and fans raised thousands of dollars to help pay medical bills and other expenses.

In addition to providing rich details of Althea’s life, the authors uncover nuggets of black history – How many of you know who was the first black golfer to play in the US Open? — while adding historical perspective to Althea’s milestones.

Consider, for example, the following passage on Althea breaking the color barrier:

“In a sport born during the Renaissance and preserved exclusively for England’s upper classes by a decree of 1388, Althea would make it easier for the sons and daughters of slaves to take part by stepping onto the court at Forest Hills.”

I am embarrassed to say this book had been gathering dust on my bookshelves for nearly 10 years before I “discovered” it, even though Yanick Rice Lamb is a friend whom I met in New York City where we both worked as journalists. She now chairs the Department of Media, Journalism & Film at Howard University.

I reached out to Yanick to get a sense of what it was like spending time with such a legend.

“It was like peeling an onion in learning so many things about her that I didn’t know,” Yanick told me.

She said she jumped at the opportunity to team with Frances Clayton Gray, Althea’s caretaker and confidante, on the biography largely because she was born in 1957, the same year Althea won the first of her back-to-back Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles.

“I pay attention to things that happened in the year of my birth,” she said.

Yanick agreed that Althea’s place in our history “definitely gets overshadowed.”

Yet, it is refreshing to learn that young Dariann Adams, whom I recently wrote about, has done extensive research for school projects on the woman she considers a role model.

In a school essay titled “How Althea Gibson Relates to Me,” Dariann wrote about how she has overcome shyness through tennis, drawing inspiration from Althea.

Here is an excerpt:

“One thing I learned is that she had a lot of courage and confidence ever since she was a young girl…She had overcome many fears to become a great success. But many people helped her to gain confidence and to become a success.”

For another school project, Dariann put together an impressive power point presentation on Althea.

She concluded the show with this slide below.

altheaslide
Dariann is the girl in the pink T-shirt, next to Sloane Stephens (bottom, right), whom she had a chance to meet at a kids day tennis event in July, 2014, in Prince Georges County, MD.

 

.As much as I was deflated by my 40-something client’s blank face on Althea, I am uplifted to see Althea’s legacy burning brightly in this 10-year old aspiring tennis player!

 

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