Althea Gibson: Jackie Robinson times two

October 07, 2003|By Andrea Lewis

ALTHEA GIBSON has been one of my heroes for as long as I can remember.

Tennis was the first sport that I loved when I was growing up, and though Ms. Gibson's tennis career was over well before I knew what "30-love" meant, I can still remember heading off to our Detroit neighborhood playground with the wood racket and can of tennis balls my mother bought me. I spent hours whacking balls against a wall and imagining myself winning Wimbledon just as Althea Gibson did.

Ms. Gibson, who died of respiratory failure Sept. 28, inspired two generations of young black women like me.

Before the Williams sisters, before Arthur Ashe, before Tiger Woods, there was Althea Gibson. She didn't just break one color barrier; she was Jackie Robinson, times two.

She began by smashing through as the first black person to play in (and win) tennis' Grand Slam events. Then a few short years later, she teed off as the first black woman to join the LPGA tour.

During her relatively short but tremendously successful tennis career, Ms. Gibson won 11 major titles and was named Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year in 1957 - the same year she became the first black person to win Wimbledon.

"Shaking hands with the queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus going into downtown Wilmington, N.C.," Ms. Gibson wrote in her autobiography, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody.

Ms. Gibson's on-court successes came well before the days of big prize money and lucrative endorsement contracts. And despite her international fame, she needed to find a way to make a living. She did everything from recording an album (Althea Gibson Sings) to appearing in a movie (John Ford's The Horse Soldiers) to touring with the Harlem Globetrotters (playing tennis exhibitions during halftime).

A couple of years later, when she heard about a women's professional golf circuit, she set her sights on learning that game and joining the tour. "I was not ready to hang up my sports equipment," she told British writer Liz Kahn. "I still felt strong, agile, and my mind was clear on what I wanted to do."

Remarkably, Ms. Gibson learned the game in less than three years and qualified for the LPGA tour in 1963. Although she never won a title, in 1967, her best year on tour, she had a third-place finish and ended the year at No. 23 on the money list.

Yet in spite of Althea Gibson's numerous athletic talents and accomplishments, she had to fight for inclusion at every step. Along the way, she was denied access to country clubs and locker rooms and was refused admission in hotels and restaurants.

During the later years of her life, many of Ms. Gibson's accomplishments faded from the public memory. She lived in relative obscurity after suffering a series of strokes and aneurysms during the mid-1990s. She saw only a few close friends, such as former New York Mayor David Dinkins, who told the Associated Press that Ms. Gibson "was very mindful of the fact that she had achieved greatness and yet was not able to receive the rewards that would normally accompany achievements like hers."

I wasn't as tall, thin, graceful or talented as Ms. Gibson was, and I never played tennis much after high school. But Ms. Gibson planted in my mind the seed of possibility.

Her courage and her accomplishments told me - and no doubt many other young black women - that if you dream it, you can achieve it. That legacy is priceless. Thanks, Althea.

Andrea Lewis is co-host of The Morning Show on KPFA Radio in Berkeley, Calif. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.

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