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Celebrating Women’s History Month • From The Vault • Althea Gibson and Ella Fitzgerald Two Great Role Models

Comparing Two Great Women of the 20th Century

Originally Published February 2014

By Francisco Resendiz

Former tennis great Althea Gibson and singing sensation Ella Fitzgerald shared so much more in common than the fact that they have both been bestowed the remarkable honor of having a commemorative stamp issued to them by the United States Postal Service.

They both were true greats in their professions – giants, really. And even in death, they are immortalized by hundreds of thousands who continue to draw inspiration on the lives they led while on this Earth. Both grew up in New York , and both experienced just how tough it was to be an African American women seeking greatness in this country.

Gibson came from the streets of Harlem in the 1930, a poor child whose family was on welfare. She hated her home life and often never made it to school, instead choosing to run away from the pain she felt living at home.

It was the Police Athletic Leagues and the Parks Department in New York City that ultimately rescued Gibson from all that hurt. Ironically, it was a musician named Buddy Walker who first noticed her playing table tennis, and thought she might do well in tennis. Althea also studied music with Buddy for three years. (She also loved playing The SAX.) A trip to the Harlem River Tennis Courts was next and it was there that she began a love affair with tennis.

Gibson would later become a member of the Harlem Cosmopolitan Tennis Club, a club for African American players, through donations raised for her membership and lessons.

Gibson was denied many opportunities to play in tournaments until 1950, when white tennis player Alice Marble wrote about the injustice in American Lawn Tennis Magazine.

She became the Jackie Robinson of tennis, a year or so later entering the national grass court championship at Forest Hills, the first African American player of either sex to be allowed to enter.

And in 1951 she became the first African American invited to enter The All England Club for the tournament at Wimbledon.

Imagine the joy Gibson must have felt when she lavished with a ticker tape parade in her home city of New York after winning the singles and double titles at Wimbledon in 1957. She would win Wimbledon again the following year, and then took up pro golf and appeared in several films.

Like Fitzgerald, Gibson suffered from serious health problems near the end of her life and fundraising efforts helped her get by. She died in 2003.

Gibson’s stamp was issued on Aug. 23, 2013 in Flushing, N.Y., while Fitzgerald’s stamp was issued in 2007.

Born in Newport News, Va., in 1917, Ella Jane Fitzgerald – known as the First Lady of Song – moved with her mother to Yonkers, N.Y., as a youngster and began to sing and dance from an early age. She was discovered at the famed Apollo Theatre in the mid-1930s winning a singing contest at the tender age of 16. The world famous Mills Brothers actually discovered her and helped her . Donald Mills said “Ella had the most perfect voice and that it was a gift from the heavens” . She was soon after hired to sing with Chick Webb’s band.

She recorded the song books of such composers as Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Rogers and Hart and Johnny Mercer.

Over the years, Fitzgerald won 13 Grammy Awards and many other honors, including the National Medal of Arts, presented to her in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan. She was one of five artists awarded Kennedy Center Honors in 1979. In 1989, the Society of Singers created an award for lifetime achievement, called it the “Ella,” and made her its first recipient.

In comparing these two amazing talents, it’s important to realize – like any true champion – you must relish the big stage. “I’m very shy, and I shy away from people,” Ella once said. “But the moment I hit the stage, it’s a different feeling. I get nerve from somewhere; maybe it’s because it’s something I love to do.”

Gibson loved to play tennis. Fitzgerald loved to sing. Doing what you love and with a passion is a lesson we call all take to heart. And maybe that’s the true comparison between the two right there.

EDITORS NOTE: We spoke to Althea on many occasions. She loved tennis with such a great passion that even after the US Open moved to Flushing you could see Althea sitting in the players restaurant “holding court. ” We loved our chats. We loved Althea. She was such a great athlete. Gussy Moran told us that Althea could hit a baseball or golf ball or tennis ball as good as any man of the day. No steroids folks. Just sheer talent. Gussy said Althea could hold her own with the NY Yankees of the sixties hitting balls with the boys. (Mantle , Maris ,Howard ) . Lovey’s love of tennis was because as a kid she read Althea’s autobiography “I Always Wanted To Be Somebody ” from that moment she was hooked on her lifelong love and passion for tennis.

It was sad Althea and Gussy both died in poverty. Maybe some day the WTA will do something like a retirement safety net? Maybe even the USTA?

Regarding the most amazing singer ever. Yes , Dear Ella. We met her too. Saw her often at concerts and around town. But once we had an encounter. Ella sang us a medley in the check out line of the local market of Cole Porter. Yes, it really happened. Ella lived well. She had a car and driver and lived on one of the best streets in Los Angeles. She died with dignity and the world was her oyster. Chester was her driver and the car was a magnificent old custom blue Mercedes.

P.S. Althea loved music. She recorded an album called ALTHEA GIBSON SINGS. Recorded on the DOT label some of her songs were :I can’t give you anything but love , Dream a little dream of me , once in awhile.

PS: This album is available on cd now. Click Here to find it on Amazon.