Three Years After Jackie, Althea
Three years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s racial barrier, another athlete who was born into a family of southern sharecroppers cracked open the U.S. National Championships, forerunner of today’s U.S. Open.
Sixty-seven years ago this week, Althea Gibson became the first tennis player of color to swing a racket at the Nationals. Having built a winning portfolio with the American Tennis Association (ATA) and granted entry to compete at an all-white tennis club, the 23-year old subsequently made her debut in Forest Hills on August 28, 1950.
Founded in 1916, the ATA was the tennis version of the Negro League, black America’s answer to the practice of banning African-Americans from competing alongside whites.
But tennis was different. Entering the Nationals was not the same as breaking into a mass-consumption pastime sport like baseball. A mostly unpaid recreational pursuit, lawn tennis embodied the added hurdles of money, class and status.
Gibson’s initiation was more historic than triumphant. She lost in the second round of her inaugural tournament to the #3 seeded Wimbledon titlist, Louise Brough. It would take a half-dozen years and plenty of frustrations before landing her first trophy at the 1956 French Open.
What followed were two consecutive seasons of victories at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. By the end of her amateur career in 1958, she would clinch 5 singles grand slams.
Gibson was the first black champion in Wimbledon’s 80-year history and the first to receive the trophy personally from Queen Elizabeth II. She remarked that shaking hands with the monarch “was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus”.
The tennis prodigy also stormed the doubles scene. In addition to a playing partner, Gibson found a soul mate in Angela Buxton, a Jewish tennis virtuoso who herself ran up against discrimination in her native England.
Together, the pair captured the doubles competitions at the French Open and at Wimbledon in 1956; the feat was as much a bold statement in the face of the elite tennis world as it was an athletic achievement.
Gibson was named Female Athlete of The Year by AP in 1957 & 1958. “Sports Illustrated” and “Time” both had her on their front covers, the first black woman to be featured.
Though born in the South, young Althea grew up in Harlem and started drawing attention after winning paddle tennis matches. A cadre of upper class black professionals took over and provided training and guidance. Boxing champ Sugar Ray Robinson was one of her patrons.
At the time, players qualified for the Nationals by accumulating points at sanctioned tournaments, most of which were by invitation and held at private white-only clubs.
The unlikely tennis star, who was born in a rural shack and brought up on the streets of New York, was groomed with the necessary grace and elegance expected of ladies on the tennis court.
But it wasn’t until Alice Marble, a 1930’s American tennis celebrity, published an indicting article against the sport’s policy of segregation, that Gibson was allowed entry.
In July, 1950, Gibson received an invitation to the Eastern grass court championships at the Orange Lawn Tennis Club in South Orange, NJ. Her performance there was good enough to win a bid to Forest Hills.
And the rest as they say, is history.
RUGBY February 23, 2008- Wales defeat Italy 47-8 in the 3rd week of the Six Nations Championship. The team would continue their march towards their 10th Grand Slam, 19th Triple Crown, and 24th Champions title and concede only 2 tries during the entire competition. The annual Six Nations rugby games started in 1883 just among England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
BASKETBALL February 21, 1998- Nick Anderson of the Orlando Magic is named NBA Player Of The Week. Spending 2 years at the University of Illinois, Anderson left in 1989 and was the first pick in Magic’s history when the Orlando team franchise first started playing that season. Anderson closed out his career in 2002 with career stats of 14.4 ppg, 2.6 apg and 1.4 spg.
OLYMPICS February 20, 1988- Brian Boitano of the U.S. wins the Olympic gold medal in figure skating. The native resident of Sunnyvale, California skated 8 triple jumps, 2 axels, and a triple-triple combination to claim the top spot at the Calgary games. Six years earlier, Boitano became the first American to land a triple axel.
TRIATHLON February 18, 1978- The first Iron Man Triathlon competition is held in Oahu, Hawaii. The three-part race of swimming (2.4 miles), cycling (112 miles) and running (26.2 miles) is one of the most grueling single-day sporting events in the world. A participant who completes each stage within a certain time frame is designated an Iron Man.