Editors Note: Thank you google for using the great champion tennis player Althea Gibson as a screen saver in honor of her birthday this past Monday. We here at 10sballs.com saw our numbers going crazy for Althea story hits and didn’t figure it out till a few days ago. Althea was my female sports hero and Pancho Gonzales was my male hero. Please enjoy this great contribution by the best Tennis author in Britain Richard Evans.
Althea Gibson, the first African-American ever to win a Grand Slam title, provided a perfect example of America’s schizophrenia over its attitude to people of color in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
After winning Wimbledon in 1957, Gibson received the incredibly rare accolade of being given a ticker-tape ‘Welcome Home’ down Broadway on her return to New York. Yet a few years later, when this hugely talented athlete switched to the professional golf tour, she was forced to change in her car because many country clubs would still not allow blacks to enter the clubhouse.
In spirit and in deed, Althea was a trail-blazer, a fact readily acknowledged by Arthur Ashe who followed her into the lily-white sport of tennis a decade later. “I had a few issues,” Arthur told me with his wry smile, “but Althea had it far worse. She faced discrimination at every turn.”
Gibson would have found it a good deal harder were it not for two of her fellow tennis players – Alice Marble, who won all three titles, singles, doubles and mixed in 1939 at both Wimbledon and US Championships, and Angela Buxton, a Wimbedon singles finalist who has become a south Florida resident in her retirement years.
Marble became incensed when Gibson was denied entry into the US Championships at Forest Hills despite the fact that she had proved her tennis pedigree by winning the all-black American Tennis Championships year after year. Using her considerable influence with the game’s governing body, Marble spoke out and forced their hand. Writing in the American Tennis Magazine, Marble had this to say: “If tennis is a game of ladies and gentlemen, it is also time we acted a little more like gentlepeople and less like sanctimonious hypocrites. If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it is only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts.”
Huffing and puffing, the blazers at the USLTA finally agreed and Althea was allowed to become the first black player to tread on the grass courts of the West Side Tennis Club and compete at Forest Hills in 1950. She did not disgrace herself, losing in three tough sets to the great Louise Brough in the second round.
Outwardly there was no discrimination at Wimbledon and she was readily accepted into the singles draw in 1951. However she could not find anyone to play doubles with her. According to Angela Buxton it was worse than that.
“Not play doubles with her? The other American players wouldn’t speak to her!”
I talked to Angela at length about Althea and their story is a remarkable one. Buxton was a schoolgirl when she heard about an amazing black player who was competing in the London Grass Court Championships at the Queen’s Club. So she took a bus one evening and got there in time to see the top of Gibson’s head as she completed one of her matches on a crowded outside court. Afterwards, she plucked up courage to ask the tall, imposing American for her autograph. Althea gave it to her without a second glance.
Gibson nearly never played in England again. Not having been able to travel abroad in the intervening years for financial reasons, she decided to quit tennis in 1955 and join the US Military. Tennis had proved to be too tough, not just because of the discrimination but because she couldn’t earn a cent. But, as chance would have it, some enlightened person at the State Department decided it would be a good idea to send a racially mixed tennis team to Asia to play in local tournaments – just to show the world what a racially harmonious nation the United States was. Ham Richardson, one of the great American players of the era, was put in charge and he took the perfect pair — Althea and the blonde bombshell Karol Fageros.
By then Buxton had become a tournament player and the two met during tournaments in India. “The tour had changed her mind about retiring,” Angela told me. “She told me that she was thinking of travelling on to Europe to play more tournaments, keeping her return air ticket in case things didn’t work out. I told her she could always stay with me in London and eventually we met up again at the women’s indoor event at Stade Coubertin in Paris – the same tournament that is still held there every February. We became even better friends and went sightseeing and took in some movies. And then we were back in Paris a few months later for the 1956 French Championships at Roland Garros.”
It was then that Buxton’s coach, Jimmy Jones, suggested that she ask Gibson if she wanted to play doubles with her. “I was too nervous so I told Jimmy to go and ask Althea for me.”
The answer was an immediate ‘yes’ and so it was that Althea not only won the Roland Garros singles title that year, beating Dorothy Knode in the final, but, with her new British partner, beat Knode and Darlene Hard to win the doubles as well.
The pair also cleaned up at Wimbledon and, although Althea lost early in the singles, Angela, emboldened by her success in Paris, reached the singles final where she lost to Shirley Fry.
A year later when Gibson had lifted the level of her powerful serve and volley game to new heights, she swept all before her, winning the singles at Wimbledon and Forest Hills. By 1957, the USLTA had come to terms with the fact that their Wightman Cup team could not do without this big black super star and she was paired with Darlene Hard in the doubles at Wimbledon. They won.
Buxton has often been credited with breaking the color barrier by offering to play doubles with Gibson but she says it was unintentional. “I know racial issues will be included in my legacy,” she days. “But that was not really what I was thinking about. Althea had become my friend and it was mutually beneficial for us to play together.”
Buxton admits, however, that she had become well aware of what it was like to be discriminated against. As a teenager she started having lessons at a well known club in North London and signed forms to become a member. After some weeks went by, she asked her coach what had happened to the form. “I’m sorry to have to tell you you’ll never become a member of this club, Angela. You’re Jewish.”
Meanwhile, Gibson was ploughing a lonely furrow in the States as the only black player in the game. Doors were shut in her face at every turn and, being a strong personality with a clear idea of her own worth, she did not take it lying down. She held her head high and talked back – an unforgivable sin for a black person in some circles in the 1950’s.
“She certainly did not help herself in that respect,” admits Buxton. “In fact, a little of that attitude seeped into our relationship on the doubles court. When we were playing at Queen’s she started giving me dirty looks when I missed a ball and it began affecting my confidence. I spoke to Jimmy about it and he got us together and told Althea that she was having an adverse effect on her partner. She was appalled. She simply hadn’t realized that the attitude society had forced her to adopt had begun to harm our relationship. So Jimmy found a couple of players and made us go out at Queen’s and play a practice match – the practice being about attitude rather than our play. Althea got the message and it was fine after that.”
Althea was certainly fine with me when we started working together in 1960. Looking back, I suppose you could say she was responsible for my career as a tennis writer. On her second and final retirement from tennis the previous year, Althea had been hired by the London Evening Standard to write daily articles at Wimbledon. The paper’s literary editor had done the ghost writing because he was a tennis fan. But he decided one year was enough so Charles Wintour, who was great an editor of the Evening Standard as his daughter Anna has become at Vogue, said to his Sports Editor, “You’ve got this young man joining the paper today. Give him to Althea!”
I had joined as the rugby and rowing correspondent but, as luck would have it, I never got to do much rowing. I was told to report to Queen’s and introduce myself to Althea and, the following Monday the front page of the paper carried a report from Wimbledon under the by-line: Althea Gibson talking to Richard Evans.
She was a delight work with – serious, charming and great at analyzing what was happening on court. In those days, the Wimbledon Ball was held at the Grosvenor House and Althea asked me if I would like to escort her. I was living with my mother less than a mile away at Park West, an apartment block on the Edgware Road. I suggested to Althea that she come round for a drink before the Ball. My poor Mum was just a little nervous. It was the first time she had ever entertained a black person!
I don’t remember too many raised eye brows when I walked down the stairs that lead to the great Grosvenor House Ballroom with Althea on my arm. She had, of course, twice been feted at the dinner before as champion so it was not a new experience for her. But dancing with someone who, in not very high heels, was a couple of inches taller than my 6ft 1” was something of a first as far as I was concerned.
Digging into my yellowing cutting files, I came up with this comment in the article we wrote on Thursday, 23rd June 1960. We were talking about glare of publicity that young Chuck McKinley was having to deal as the next great American hope and Althea said this:
“I remember being put under the full heat of the publicity spotlight when I first came to Wimbledon in 1951. I can admit now that the publicity I received as the only American Negro girl competing brought a lot of pressure on me. I felt I had much to live up to and was afraid of disappointing my countrymen.
“Mainly for financial reasons, it was five years before I returned to Wimbledon and when I did so I came straight from a six month tour of South-East Asia and Europe during which period I had won 29 tournaments. By this time I had matured and had gained enough confidence in my ability to remain unaffected by any publicity that was centered on me.”
Twenty-nine tournaments! I had forgotten that and it shows just what kind of dominance Althea was beginning to exert over the game. “She was just so physically strong,” Buxton recalls. “She pounded her returns and was all over the net with her big reach.”
Unhappily, her contract was not renewed with the Evening Standard because they were desperate to get the London-based and hugely popular former Wimbledon champion Jaroslav Drobny as my next writing partner. So I never saw much of Althea again. She tried her hand with some success at golf and, later in life, having made a movie “The Horse Soldiers” with John Wayne and cut an album – because she could sing, too – this immensely talented woman became New Jersey’s Athletic Commissioner. She resigned after a year because she felt she was just a figure head and went on to run the Recreation Department at East Orange, NJ for a few years.
But, after her second husband died, her old age descended into tragedy. Forgotten and unheard when she tried to appeal to the tennis community for help, it took a desperate call to Angela to save her. “She was threatening suicide,” says Buxton. “I knew it was serious because it must have taken a lot for her to call me. She was a very proud person. I immediately rallied some of the stars of the day and they came up with four figure sums.”
It helped stave off the inevitable for a while but in 2003, Althea Gibson, like Bill Tilden and Gussie Moran before her, died — essentially alone and broke. She was 76.
There are safeguards in place now with pension funds to ensure that this fate is less likely to befall today’s players but the tennis family needs to be vigilant. We must make sure this never happens again.