ALTHEA: The Life of Tennis Champion Althea Gibson
By Sally H. Jacobs
St. Martin's Press; hardcover, 464 pages; $32.00; available today, Tuesday, August 15th
Sally H. Jacobs is a former reporter for the Boston Globe, and a winner of the George Polk Award and the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting with the Globe newsroom, and is the author of The Other Barack, a biography of former President Barack Obama's father.
Althea Gibson was the first Black woman to be Number One in tennis in the world, as she broke the color barrier in what was known as "the game of royalty." She is a part of a pantheon of tennis greats that includes Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, Roger Federer, and Serena and Venus Williams, yet there is not nearly as much known about her.
Jacobs, in the deeply researched new book, ALTHEA: The Life of Tennis Champion Althea Gibson, chronicles Althea's rise from a difficult childhood in Harlem to historic firsts in multiple sports, and to tell this story in full, Jacobs conducted over one hundred interviews with people who knew Gibson well.
Gibson grew up in an abusive household and preferred to spend her time on the streets in Harlem, and gained the reputation of never backing down from a fight. Even though she was a high school dropout, she was a natural athlete who tried out for tennis at the Cosmopolitan Club in Harlem, which was significant because it was one of the growing number of tennis clubs in the country at the time whose members represented the elite echelons of Black society.
Some of the members of the Cosmopolitan Club backed her financially, which led Gibson to be trained by venerated coach Fred Johnson and be a part of the Black circuit at the time. This began her journey that led her to become the first Black woman to win at Wimbledon in 1957 and '58, as well as winning the U.S. Open in Forest Hills those two years, have a ticker tape parade held on Broadway in her honor, and be the first Black woman to make the cover of Sports Illustrated and the second on the cover of Time.
Incredibly, Gibson's story has not been well known all these years, and the lack of notoriety and acclaim goes back to how the elite white tennis world of the 1950s treated her. As part of this wider recognition, in 2019, a statue of Gibson was erected at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, and last year, the street Gibson grew up on in Harlem was renamed in her honor.
Ever since Gibson won her first big tournament, she was referred to as "the Jackie Robinson of tennis" by pundits and fans alike, but she detested it. She once said to a reporter, "I don't consider myself to be a representative of my people. I am thinking of me and nobody else." This infuriated some people of color, but with how Gibson grew up, fighting for herself may have been the most she could do.
There were always questions about Gibson's gender identity, and those swirled around her long before she showed up at a Harlem tennis club in blue jeans and short hair as a teen. She was married to two men, but she openly flirted with women, and wore tennis shorts when most women wore skirts. Adding to the intrigue, Jacobs discovered that Althea appeared to be designated a boy on her birth certificate, and that her gender on record was corrected to female decades later when the Army was examining her medical records.
Since Althea was the only Black woman competing in the major tennis tournaments of her time, she endured not only the racist insults of viewers, but was given the cold shoulder by many of her competitors. She did find a soulmate in Angela Buxton, who could relate to Althea's plight because she endured similar rejection because she was Jewish. They won multiple majors together and became lifelong friends.
In this excerpt, Jacobs writes of Althea Gibson taking a big step in her burgeoning career, "It was one of the most important and little-noticed events in American sports history.
It happened on a summer day in 1941 on a cramped clay tennis court at the Cosmopolitan Club in Harlem, a leader among a growing number of Negro tennis clubs in the country at the time whose members represented the elite echelons of Black society. At the far end of the court was a skinny thirteen-year-old girl wearing torn blue jeans and a formidable scowl. At the other end stood a one-armed tennis coach sporting his trademark green-visored cap. Watching from the stands were a couple of dozen men and women neatly turned out in pressed collared shirts and tailored floral dresses, who were taking a midday break to watch what they had been told was one of the most promising young players to come on the tennis scene. If she was as good as they said she was, the Cosmopolitan Club might just consider sponsoring her for major competitions.
They did not like what they saw. That girl wore a shoddy T-shirt, and her tangled black hair was an unruly mess. She was not at all the type sought by the Cosmopolitan, whose members prided themselves on pursuing the aristocratic sport of tennis. The way she strode brazenly around the court was just flat-out alarming to those watching from the stands who had expected a far more genteel approach to the game. Truth be told, they couldn't quite tell if she was a boy or a girl, the way she carried herself. Had they heard correctly that someone had actually called her Al? And was that really a used tennis racket in her hand, one well-heeled spectator perhaps sniffed to her neighbor...
Althea had a rough side, without question, but she was also an astonishing athlete with a burning desire to win. When Buddy Walker, a Harlem saxophonist at the time, who worked a second job helping city police monitor children playing on the streets, happened to notice her impressive speed and aggressive athleticism, he bought her a pair of restrung rackets for five dollars apiece. But when he and some of his friends urged her to try out tennis at the Cosmopolitan Club on 149th Street, Althea balked.
'What do I get out of it?' she asked.
Althea wasn't at all sure she wanted to play such a sissy sport as tennis. It was a high-falutin' game played by the rich folks who cruised the streets in their fancy convertibles and sleek foreign roadsters. One boy she knew on the block actually hid his tennis racket in a suitcase so other kids wouldn't make fun of him when he walked to the public courts. Besides, all those lily-white clothes and the equipment cost money of which her family could only dream. But Althea was never one to turn her back on a challenge. Just a couple of days after Walker made his suggestion, she found herself standing on the Cosmopolitan Club court across from its venerated coach, Fred Johnson. A draftsman for a ship design firm, Johnson had lost his left arm in an industrial accident as a child and had gone on to become one of the most successful coaches on the Black tennis scene. It took only a few minutes and half a dozen balls for the club members to make their decision. Never mind her unsettling demeanor, the girl was a formidable player with dazzling speed and an intimidating swing, precisely the sort of athlete they had been hoping for. They'd just presumed - well, hoped - that that athlete would be a boy.
'You only had to see her hit one ball to forget the blue jeans she wore to the court,' one club member told Ted Poston, a reporter for the New York Post.
Impressed, the movers and shakers of the Cosmopolitan Club took up a collection to buy Althea a junior membership to the club that would provide her both regular lessons and access to a Black society she had never before encountered. At the time, Black communities were known to put up funds to sponsor a member of their group who showed promise, just as an earlier generation in the days following slavery had pooled their very limited resources to secure education for the most able among them. After one member put up five dollars so the girl could get a new racket, Johnson contributed ten dollars from his own pocket and bought Althea a Dreadnought Driver tennis racket from Harry C. Lee & Company, famous for the enormous tennis racket suspended above its storefront down on Warren Street. Later that evening, the slender coach dropped in on Althea's parents in order to get approval to teach her tennis. The Gibson family had struggled for more than a decade since abandoning sharecropping in South Carolina to come up to Harlem, and it hadn't been easy putting food on the table for their five children. When Johnson showed up at the door and proposed his plan, Althea's mother has only one thing on her mind.
'How much money is there in it?' Annie Bell Gibson asked.
Money was not the aim of the members of the Cosmopolitan Club. These prominent doctors, political figures, and professionals composed a leadership class dubbed 'The Talented Tenth' by W.E.B. DuBois, sociologist, historian, and one of the self-described Negro intellectual leaders at the forefront of the new thinking about race that had sparked the cultural explosion of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. As part of that movement, club members were far more interested in the integration of their sport, which had proven infuriatingly resistant to Negro players. By the 1940s, though, fissures were beginning to appear in the monolith of the white American sports world. This was not to say that anything remotely resembling actual integration was occurring on the lush tennis courts that hosted the nation's highest-ranking tournaments. Tennis would remain one of the sporting world's most stubbornly unyielding holdouts to competitors of color until the late 1940s, when halfback Kenny Washington became the first Black player in the modern era to sign a contract with the National Football League in 1946, and Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball the following year when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers. In tennis, a handful of players of color were quietly allowed to compete in national tournaments during the decade, joined here and there by a celebrated white player or two who occasionally ventured onto a court populated by Black players."