CHICAGO - She was a professional golfer, a saxophone player, a blues singer, a teacher, an orator, an actress - and one of the greatest champions in the history of tennis. But the significance of Althea Gibson's life, which ended yesterday at 76, probably is appreciated by far too few.
No less a trailblazer than Jackie Robinson and Arthur Ashe, she had accomplishments perhaps more impressive because of her singular place as an African-American female athlete in the 1950s.
Gibson was the first African-American to compete in the U.S. championship in 1950 and at Wimbledon in 1951. She won the French Open in 1956 and back-to-back U.S. and Wimbledon titles in '57 and '58. After her first Wimbledon victory, she was given a ticker-tape parade in New York.
"It's not necessarily unique to the African-American community, but everybody stands on somebody's shoulders," said former New York Mayor David Dinkins, a friend of 50 years and one of the few with whom Gibson stayed in contact during a semi-reclusive last decade.
"In that respect, not just blacks had to marvel at her agility and skills and perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds. I'm saddened by her loss, but if ever there was a circumstance in which we should celebrate a life well-lived and one of great accomplishment as opposed to simply mourning a loss, this is such an instance."
The oldest of five children, she was born Aug. 25, 1927, on a cotton farm in South Carolina and raised in Harlem. Gibson described herself as a vagabond, roaming the streets of New York as a child until gaining attention for her athleticism in a Police Athletic League.
She trained first at a multiracial club in Harlem. Then, after winning the first of several American Tennis Association titles - the black counterpart to the all-white U.S. Lawn Tennis Association - Gibson moved to Wilmington, N.C., where her tennis career took off under the tutelage of two ATA officials, one of whom, Robert Johnson, later mentored Arthur Ashe.
It was the late 1940s, segregation was still the norm and it took several more years, the financial support of boxing champion Sugar Ray Robinson and the impassioned pleas by the likes of former champion Alice Marble before Gibson could gain entry into the elite tournaments.
"She simply changed the landscape of tennis," said Alan Schwartz, president of the U.S. Tennis Association. "Arthur Ashe's job was not easy, but if he had to climb a hill, Althea Gibson had to climb a mountain. She was the original breakthrough person.
"I remember seeing pictures of her accepting her trophy at Wimbledon, and what went through my mind when I first saw it was, `That's royalty giving her the trophy, and she accepted it like royalty herself,' " Schwartz said.
"She was very tall and slender [at 5 feet 10 inches and 140 pounds], very graceful, with a certain shy elegance about her."
The first female tennis player of note to possess an all-court game, Gibson used her height to unleash an overpowering serve and her athleticism to stretch for shots all over the court. She went on to win 11 Grand Slam titles: five in singles, five in doubles and one in mixed doubles.
Zina Garrison, who became the second African-American woman to reach the finals of Wimbledon when she played Martina Navratilova in 1990, said she spoke yesterday to Venus Williams, the second African-American woman to win the Wimbledon title in 2000.
"Althea used to say she wanted me to be the one who broke her barrier, to take the burden off of her," Garrison said. "When [Williams] won, I called [Gibson] and she was so happy that it was finally lifted. She knew she opened the door for all of us, and she was so excited about all the women who followed her."
Yesterday, Williams released a statement regarding Gibson's death.
"I am grateful to Althea Gibson for having the strength and courage to break through the racial barriers in tennis," it said. "Althea Gibson was the first African-American woman to rank No. 1 and win Wimbledon, and I am honored to have followed in such great footsteps. Her accomplishments set the stage for my success and through players like myself, Serena [Williams] and many others to come, her legacy will live on."
Garrison recalled yesterday that Gibson came to watch her play Navratilova in the 1990 finals at Wimbledon, one of her last public appearances.
Camille Mosley, who is co-writing a book to be titled Outside the Lines, chronicling the history of African-American tennis, said Gibson was the most prominent player to move from the all-segregated tennis world of the ATA to the USLTA.
Mosley contends Gibson's impact should be viewed as bigger than Jackie Robinson's.
"There was no other black player at that level," said Mosley, "and I hope that people appreciate that she created opportunities not just for athletes but for all women. She took the beating for all women to be considered seriously in all endeavors."
After retiring from tennis, Gibson released an album; appeared in a film called The Horse Soldiers with John Wayne; toured with the Harlem Globetrotters playing exhibition tennis matches; played on the LPGA Tour, and was the state commissioner of athletics in New Jersey. But it was among her greatest sources of satisfaction, said close friend Fran Gray, that the foundation she co-founded with Gray succeeded not just in exposing inner-city children to sports such as tennis and golf, but also in focusing on their education.
Gibson was preceded in death by two husbands. She had no children.
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