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Breaking Barriers: Remembering Althea Gibson

Tennis icon Althea Gibson in 1956; photo via Wikimedia Commons.

By Gary Schwartz

If you are lucky, life gives you moments that change you forever. For me, that happened at the US Open tennis tournament in 1984, where I spent an afternoon tennis legend Althea Gibson play.

Before there was Serena, you had Althea! She was the first female athlete in the sport to break the color line, and the first African-American player to win Wimbledon (which she did consecutively in 1957 and 1958, predating Arthur Ashe’s 1975 championship by 18 years).

My father, a childhood tennis phenom from Brooklyn, had met Gibson while playing in the same tennis tournaments in the 50s. He had introduced me to her the day before the 1984 Open; at that time I was a learning-disabled chatterbox with a passion for tennis and its history.  

Althea Gibson, in a portrait from the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons. 1958.

I was impressed.  My dad and Althea talked and laughed for a short time. Later, my Dad explained to me that there weren’t many blacks or Jews on the tennis tour, and he and Althea had become friends. They were both New Yorkers and well-known tennis stars, and the two felt comfortable together. 

The next day, I was sneaking down to the courtside “Past Champions” box with my sister when we spotted Althea. We sat down next to her and introduced ourselves again. She remembered who we were and asked where our Dad was. I had no fear; I started chatting with Althea like we were old friends. We talked about tennis as we watched Zina Garrison, a promising black player, compete in her second-round match. My sister kept giving me looks to shut-up, but I was enthralled by talking to Gibson. 

When the usher showed up to kick my sister and me out of the box, Althea told him that the two of us were with her. My sister was shocked, but I just smiled at the usher and sat right back down next to my new friend. For the next set, I had a million things to ask her. My sister would keep shooting me death looks, but Althea would then put her hand on her leg and tell her that it was fine, and she enjoyed talking about tennis. After the match she bid us farewell and left. 

Darlene Hard congratulates Gibson after the latter defeated her at Wimbledon in 1957. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

I never forgot Althea, but I only knew her from her accomplishments. I never knew how awfully she was treated by the tennis community. I remember something she said to my dad; “They keep you out of sight until they want to give you an award.” 

This past spring PBS re-aired Rex Miller’s documentary Althea, a special on the life and times of Althea Gibson. It showed that the years between 1984 and 1997 were hard for Gibson, times where she met great failure. By the late 90s, Gibson was broke, suffering from arthritis, and confined to a wheelchair. At one point during this time, Althea called her longtime friend and former doubles partner, Angela Buxton, to say goodbye: Gibson was planning on killing herself. Angela told her to hold on, sent her a check for the next few months of rent, and formulated a plan. Althea promised to wait.

Gibson after her second Wimbledon win in 1958. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The next week, a message was placed in Tennis Magazine, telling of Althea’s plight and her need for help. A month later Angela received another call from Althea; her mailbox was full and there were three bags of mail outside her house. 

“Don’t touch it, I’m coming,” Angela told Althea. That weekend, they opened all of the mail. There was money from everywhere, totaling more than a million dollars, and tennis celebrities like Billie Jean King came to her aid. Althea had finally found out how much the world loved her. Gibson now wanted for and needed nothing. She died in 2003.

And I, that silly slow kid, am now an adult, a teacher with kids of my own and a master’s degree. I am also an experienced tennis instructor with a lifetime of experience in the game. I still feel that excitement each year when the Open starts, and tell my Althea story to whoever will listen. I remember a warm, kind woman who treated me like family. She was a Champion. 

Based on Long Island, Gary Schwartz is the owner and creator of the bestselling cannabis-themed game Roll-a-Bong, as well as owner and chief designer of Quantum RPGs-3D Tabletop Gaming. He has over 25 years of experience in the game design industry. Gary is also a writer, comics artist, and science educator. For more information, visit roll-a-bong.com or follow on Instagram at @roll_abong

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