All-American: Venus & Serena

Episode 5: Althea

Jordan: Hey, Cecil. 


Cecil Harris: Hey, Jordan. 


Jordan: So today's episode is all about Althea Gibson, the greatest tennis player that most people probably have never heard of. And she was the first black player to ever compete in a Grand Slam event. And I know you are a huge fan of the IS and so is Serena. And you actually had a chance to talk with Serena about the Gibson, right? 


Cecil Harris: That's right. At the 26th U.S. Open, I was working on my first tennis book, Charging the Net A History of Blacks in tennis from Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the Williams sisters. And I found out that Serena and Venus were huge fans of Althea Gibson. And there was even talk at the time that Serena was interested in playing Althea Gibson in a movie. 


Jordan: The New York Times had come out with an article that said that Serena wanted to make enough the biopic and that Althea was Serena's idol. Yeah. 


Cecil Harris: Serena was doing quite a bit of acting at that time. Sitcoms are dramatic series, and she was interested in portraying Althea Gibson, so I asked her about that after her match in the interview room, and that's when she gave me the quote that she would like to do anything to let people know about Althea and what a tremendous person she was. Definitely. And I asked her how she knew about Althea, and she did mention that her parents told her and Venus about Althea and how important she is in tennis history, and how Serena and Venus are not the first. They're part of a legacy that really began in major tennis without the Gibson. Althea Gibson was breaking ground in tennis well before Venus and Serena did in the nineties and even before Arthur Ashe in the sixties and seventies. But today, Althea has been largely forgotten. Even concerted efforts to honor her legacy have barely broken through. 


Jordan: And there it is right there. So there's just it's just as. Althea Gibson. 


Cecil Harris: Yes. It's pretty cool though. Yeah, it's very well done. The sculptor did a fine job. 


Cecil Harris: It's late summer of 2021, and my production team and I are in Queens outside of Arthur Ashe Stadium during the U.S. Open. We're standing around a huge bronze sculpture of Althea Gibson's head, as wonderful a job as the sculptor did, because it really looks like Althea Gibson. It still does not pay tribute to her because it's a bust of Althea, the name Althea Gibson, and a quote, I hope that I have accomplished just one thing, that I have been a credit to tennis and my country. But if you don't already know who Althea Gibson was, this doesn't tell you there's. 


Jordan: doesn't tell me anything. 


Cecil Harris: Althea Gibson, 1927 to 2003. How hard is that? It's not here. Althea Gibson's basic statistics. She won the French Open in singles. She won the U.S. Nationals in 1957 and 1958. She won Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958. She won 11 Grand Slam titles in all five and singles, six and doubles. I'm doing this off the top of my head. They have room to put this here to provide some historical context, but they failed. If you knew about the life, career and legacy of Althea Gibson, you might also be upset by the lack of information on this statute. Before Althea, American tennis governing body excluded blacks from competing in its tournaments. But in 1958, Althea broke that color barrier. Althea was also the first black person to ever win a Grand Slam event. Her career rivals that of Jackie Robinson's, but not many people know much about her. So today we're going to tell you about Althea life, how she moved tennis forward in so many ways, but received little in return, and how, to this day, she largely hasn't received her due. This is All American. Venus and Serena. Episode five. Althea. 


TV Journalist: I am sitting opposite a woman of unique talent and reputation. The famous Althea Gibson. And she started her tennis in a most unique way. It wasn't even tennis. Was it Althea Gibson? 


Althea Gibson: No, it wasn't. It was padel tennis. 


Cecil Harris: In 1979, Althea Gibson sat down with Bud Lesser for an interview for the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Althea was in her early fifties here and long retired from tennis. But her early memories of first learning the sport were vivid. During the summers in the 1930s and forties, Althea and the other children in her Harlem neighborhood would participate in the Police Athletic League. The program blocked off the streets and allowed the children to just play. 


Althea Gibson: So this friend of mine, who I call in those days, my Boone Coon, because we you know, we played tennis together, we played basketball, all kinds of activities together. And we started hitting the ball back and forth and got good to us. And so we would anticipate every summer morning be the first on a tennis on the paddle tennis court, practicing, hitting balls, enjoying it. And as a matter of fact, we got to a point where we own the paddle tennis court. Nobody could get on the court with us. And so we developed a game called Losers Weepers. Otherwise, the loser would have to get up, get off the court, and then someone would take his place. And whoever wins, stay on the court as long as they want to. And you stayed all day, and I stayed all day. 


Cecil Harris: A man named Buddy Walker, who was working as a supervisor in the play Street, took notice of out this game. He gave her her first tennis racket. 


Althea Gibson: And after hitting balls off the wall for some time and practicing how to keep an eye on the ball, he later introduced me to a member of the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club. And in those days, the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club was the elite black tennis club in New York City. 


Cecil Harris: Members of the club were intrigued by Althea. Her talent was hard to miss. 


Althea Gibson: And so after seeing me hit some balls at the Cosmopolitan, I suppose I must have been about 15 or 16 or something like that. They made me an honorary girl member of the club. In other words, they took me as one of theirs. And the very first year they entered me in the New York State Championship under the auspices of the 80. 


Cecil Harris: The AITA is the American Tennis Association. AITA For short. It was founded in 1916 by black achievers in business and other professions. At the time, tennis in America was governed by the United States Lawn Tennis Association, or the U.S. LTA. It excluded black tennis players from competing in tournaments. In fact, this is the same tennis organization as the contemporary USGA. They just changed their name in the 1970s. So like Althea and many members of the Cosmopolitan Club, if you were black and you wanted to play tennis at the highest level, you joined the AITA. The first year, Althea competed in the 88 championship. She was entered in girls singles, and she played the tournament's reigning champion. 


Althea Gibson: I beat her, and that started my rise in 80 tennis. And from then, when I became of age to get in the women's division, I retain I won the championship in 1947 as the woman's 80 national singles champion, and I held that championship for ten consecutive years. 


Cecil Harris: It's hard to overstate how dominant Althea Gibson became at tennis. She was just 15 when she won her first junior championship. And as she mentioned later in women's singles, she won the 88 championship ten years in a row. Plus, she won it in mixed doubles seven times. It was becoming clear that she had outgrown the 80. She was more than ready to prove herself on tennis. Biggest stages. In her late teens and early twenties, she had a dedicated coach and Dr. Robert Walter Johnson. He wanted to see Althea take her game to UCLA to run events, even though at the time they didn't let black players participate in their events. So he lobbied the U.S., LTA for years to allow her to play, but they would not permit her to compete. 


TV Journalist: And thus, of course, was all color discrimination. 


Althea Gibson: Yes. Yes. Yes. I don't know at that time what the reasons may maybe they thought that I wasn't good enough. 


Cecil Harris: The U.S., LTA, wouldn't budge until someone with stature in American tennis decided to speak up. 


Althea Gibson: Alice Marble wrote an open letter to me and of course it was. Copies were sent to officials of the US, LTA, AITA and the press, and she was appalled at the fact that I had to go through so much of this rigmarole to just to permit me to play in U.S. LTA events. 


Cecil Harris: Alice Marble was a white player who dominated major tennis in the 1940s. Marble had never met Althea Gibson, but she had been hearing about Althea as incredible game, and she thought Althea should have a chance to compete. So in July of 1950, Alice Marble published an open letter to Althea in the tennis publication at the time, the American Lawn Tennis magazine. She wrote, quote, If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it's also time we acted a little more like gentle people and less like sanctimonious hypocrites. If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it's only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts. Around this time in America, Major League Baseball, basketball and even football have been integrated. Tennis was holding out. But just one month after that letter was published, Althea was permitted to play in a U.S. LTA event. At 23 years old, Althea Gibson had broken the 69 year color barrier in major tennis. But Althea didn't dominate major tennis right away. She needed some time for her game to grow, and the racist culture of the sport only made things a lot harder for her. At some venues, Althea was forced to change in a car because she wasn't allowed in the locker room. She often had to eat alone at tournaments. Plus, she was still barred from some U.S. LTA tennis events. The Longwood Cricket Club in Boston, which held the annual doubles event for major tennis, would not extend her an invitation because she was black. This went on for seven years. Despite the obstacles, Althea had an impressive ranking in 1952 and 1953. She was in the top ten in the world. But it wasn't until Althea got a highly unusual opportunity from the U.S. government that her career really took off. In 1955, Althea and several other athletes and celebrities were sent on an overseas tour funded by the U.S. government. America's goal in all of this to improve its image abroad on a number of fronts. 


Althea Gibson: So I was approached by officials from the State Department and the U.S., LTA, to go on a Goodwill State Department tour throughout Southeast Asia. 


Cecil Harris: For some context, 14 year old Emmett Till had just been brutally murdered. And it was an international story. Having a black woman on board, working with three prominent white tennis players, put a positive spin on race relations in the U.S.. During the tour, Althea and the other tennis stars played exhibitions. They gave tennis demonstrations, and they attended Social Affairs. 


Althea Gibson: Every single tournament that they held during our stay in Southeast Asia. I won every single one of them. And it was from this experience that I believe that my tennis rise had begun. Championship form was beginning. And during that time, from the time I went to Southeast Asia and throughout Europe after that tour up to the French championship in 1956. I had won over 17 straight tournaments in a row. 


Cecil Harris: As Althea mentioned, she won the 1956 French championship. That was a major title, her first. This made her the first black person ever to win a major tennis event. But the tennis tournaments that made headlines in America at the time were the U.S. Nationals and Wimbledon. So even though she had won a major tournament to most tennis fans, Althea still hadn't broken through yet. 


TV Announcer: Once a year, the world's best tennis players come to Wimbledon for the All England championship, the unofficial equivalent of the World Championship. Favorite to win. The women's singles are 1957 as Althea Gibson from New York, USA. 


Cecil Harris: This is the documentary from 1957, which was made by the U.S. government. The black and white footage shows fans swarming the grounds of Wimbledon, and you can see players in their tennis, whites competing on the grass, tennis courts at the All England Lawn Tennis Club. Spectators lined the stands for the match. The film shows Althea making her way through the tournament all the way to the final. 


TV Announcer: The great test is still to come. Queen Elizabeth of England was among the spectators at the final. 


Cecil Harris: Queen Elizabeth? Yes. The same one still in power as of this recording was a rare sight. She isn't much of a tennis fan. This was only one of the four times she has ever been to Wimbledon during her nearly 100 years on Earth. 


TV Announcer: And Althea Gibson faces Darlene Lord, a fellow American from California. Even as hard applause. 


Cecil Harris: Althea defeated her opponent, Darlene Hard in the first set. When they started the second set. It became clear Althea had command over this one to. 


TV Announcer: Match point. And it's all over. Six three, six two. Darlene is a good listener. Queen Elizabeth walks onto the center court to present the trophy. This is Althea Gibson. Reward for many years of effort. It's a moment crowded with memories. Oh. 


Cecil Harris: Althea Gibson accepted the trophy from the Queen. Apparently, the queen remarked to Althea about how hot it must have been on court. Winning Wimbledon tennis's most prestigious tournament meant that 29 year old Althea Gibson was suddenly world famous. When it was time for her to return to New York City. She was welcomed back with open arms. 


TV Announcer: It's a ticker tape parade for Althea Gibson, America's New World tennis queen, and the first of her race ever to win the coveted crown at Wimbledon. 


Cecil Harris: In this 1957 footage from Universal Studios, Althea is sitting in the back of a car as it drives up Broadway in Manhattan. Althea smiles and waves to the crowd lining the streets. Confetti falls from the sky. 


TV Announcer: 100,000 cheer. The 29 year old New York girl on her return from England, where victory culminated seven years of tennis endeavor which began on the streets and schoolyards of Harlem. Officially congratulated by Mayor Wagner. Ms.. Gibson modestly tells her well-wishers that victory was achieved with their hope and encouragement. 


Cecil Harris: And while her city was celebrating her, Althea still had yet to win a major title at home. But the U.S. Nationals, which today we call the U.S. Open, was just around the corner. 


TV Announcer: And it's now playing at much tournament again. This game is now being branded as the biggest around here. And I think that the best way to segment. 


Cecil Harris: This recording is from a vinyl record called The Thrill of Sports. It has the play by play of the 1957 U.S. Nationals final. The record captures the moment Althea stepped on court for her final match. She already won the first set and was leading in the second. 


TV Announcer: We are now perhaps one steps away from this historic moment of truth here. Up here, Gibson became the first Negro tennis champion of the United States. 


Cecil Harris: On match point. Althea, as opponent, hit the ball into the net. 


TV Announcer: That is the new national champion, Althea Gibson. 


TV Announcer: The national champion of the United States. Well, we were struck by the of sympathy and support. 


Cecil Harris: As the announcer said, Althea Gibson was the new national champion of the United States in her moment of victory. Althea shook hands with then-Vice President Nixon and accepted her trophy. 


Althea Gibson: First, I would like to compliment my worthy opponent, Miss Louise Breast, for her excellent play and sportsmanship. As a youngster Playing paddle tennis. Little did I dream of a thrill such as this. I want to thank God for all of you for at this moment more than ever, I realize that without the united help of all of you, this victory would not have been accomplished. I shall endeavor to grab this title with dignity and humility. 


Cecil Harris: This victory also made Althea the number one ranked tennis player in the world. And the next year, in 1958, she went on to win both Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals. Again, Althea was decorated. She had five major titles and singles, five major titles in doubles, and another title in mixed doubles less than a decade earlier. She wasn't even allowed to play major tennis. But now Althea was the best in the game. And that's why her next move was shocking. In 1958 when she was playing better than ever, Althea Gibson abruptly retired from tennis. The reason behind Althea sudden exit from the sport came down to one thing money. The sport of tennis wouldn't adopt a professional model until 1968. So if you were playing major tennis before then, like Althea, you were not paid for your work. I spoke with someone who knew Althea well to see if I could get some insight into her struggles. 


Lenny Simpson: And she will tell me all the stuff she had to go to just be a tennis player. 


Cecil Harris: Lenny Simpson is a former professional tennis player. He's in his seventies now. When we spoke, Lenny mentioned he had recently had a stroke that was still affecting his speech. I wanted to talk with Lenny because he was very close with Olivia. The two met when Lenny was just five years old. They were next door neighbors. Lenny, did she ever share with you? I'd say that the disappointment she must have felt having to retire from tennis in 1958 because it was an amateur sport and she wasn't making any money, even though she was the best in the world. 


Lenny Simpson: All the time. All the time. I'll be very frank with you. She never thought she ever got her do due in this game from you as a son of the person of power in the game. She never felt that she was treated the right way. For all that she had. Com is without make ton of money. And she regretted it. 


Althea Gibson: I can't give you anything but love, baby. That's the only thing I do. Oh, baby. 


Cecil Harris: That's Althea singing a song called I Can't Give You Anything But Love. It's from a jazz album called Althea Gibson Sings from 1959. Alpheus talent outside of tennis was exceptional, and this record was just one of many attempts to make money after her retirement from the sport. In addition to singing Our Fire Active, she had a small part in a 1959 John Wayne film. She toured with the Harlem Globetrotters, playing tennis exhibitions before the games. She was once even a guest on the popular CBS show. What's my line? 


TV Announcer: Have you been to England within the last few weeks? 


TV Announcer: Mr. Sanders. 


TV Announcer: Are you an American? 


TV Announcer: He meant it. 


TV Announcer: Well, you are practically our best tennis player. Mr. Althea Gibson? Yes. 


Cecil Harris: Like the Williams sisters. Althea is extraordinary. Talent went beyond the sport of tennis. But the difference between Venus and Serena's pursuits outside of the sport. And our fears was that Althea needed to do these things to try to earn a living. Althea even pursued a career in another sport for a time when she was a student at Florida A&M University. She played both tennis and golf, and unlike tennis, Althea could play golf professionally. So after she hung up her tennis racket, Althea turned to golf. 


Althea Gibson: I had to make a living. I had to earn the money to, you know, to live. I then decided that I would give professional golf a fling. It was then that I decided to play professional golf because the fashionable golf for the women at that time was coming. And we're playing for, you know, purses. But the prices were very, very small, but a. 


TV Journalist: Little better than tennis. 


Althea Gibson: Well, much better than tennis at that time, because that my it was strictly amateur. 


Cecil Harris: You should know that before Althea, there were no black female professional golfers. Althea also broke the color barrier in women's golf in 1963, and she played on the LPGA Tour for nearly 15 years. 


Althea Gibson: So that's how I got into pro golf. But I would like to say that tennis has afforded me great opportunities to travel around the world. I've been around the world twice and I've met so many wonderful people. Seeing how other people in the world lived. And of course, I could never forget meeting the Queen of England in 57 when I won the championship. 


Cecil Harris: Althea had a lot of incredible experiences, even fame, but she still couldn't make ends meet. Althea is longtime friend. Lenny Simpson says these experiences left her with a lot of pain. 


Lenny Simpson: I could see in her as at all to lead on with my life how much that hurts her so bad in life. And you know as well as I do and every person that knows about not only black is right, but see this much for the past black history. This is all around the world history that may and going all of that. She never really felt good about that. 


Angela Buxton You should have run out of money. And I can't stand it any longer. So I decided to kill myself. 


TV Journalist: She said those Words. 


Angela Buxton Yes. I'm finally to say goodbye. 


Cecil Harris: In 1995, when Althea was 68 years old, she called up her former doubles partner, Angela Buxton, to say goodbye. Angela and Althea became close when they first met in the 1950s. Angela was Jewish and was considered an outsider like Althea. She recounted her memories for CBS in 2019. 


Angela Buxton Did the British girls invite me to join them for a meal not want? 


TV Journalist: Experiencing similar indignities created a bond. 


Angela Buxton I was very, very friendly with her. 


TV Journalist: As a team, Althea and Angela won the French nationals and Wimbledon together. Decades later, after getting that alarming goodbye call from Althea, Angela sprung into action. She reached out to the tennis community for support and raised more than $1,000,000 for Althea. 


Lenny Simpson: I just now know if four for for her doubles partner and everything she did for her later on in life that she would maybe have taken her life. I hate to say that, but maybe so. 


Cecil Harris: Althea went on to live several more years. She died in 2003 in East Orange, New Jersey. She was 76. When I asked Lenny about his favorite memory of Althea, he recalled an encounter from 1964, when he was 15. He had just qualified for the U.S. junior nationals for the first time. 


Lenny Simpson: I remember talking to her in the stands, watch the mad, and she said to me, I told you this was going to happen to you, and I'm so glad I got to see this happen to you. 


Cecil Harris: Althea met Lenny when he was just a boy. She befriended him, taught him about tennis, about what he would face as a black tennis player. And finally, he was competing at the highest level he could. Althea told Lenny she was so, so proud of him. 


Lenny Simpson: And I never forget those words from her. But cause those the words most precious thing she could ever said to me. And, you know, we have taught to you all through your life what you are going to have to do and continue to do. And you have made it here you are in you as open. So I will never, ever forget that. 


Cecil Harris: Lenny Simpson has dedicated his life to teaching young people to play tennis, just like Althea did for him. He runs a tennis program for at risk youth called One Love Tennis and Education. It's located in Wilmington, North Carolina, the same place he and Althea first met. 


Jordan: You first met Althea Gibson in the nineties at the U.S. Open? 


Cecil Harris: That's right. The early nineties, I was covering the U.S. Open for Gannett, and there was a champion section at the old Louis Armstrong Stadium, which was the main court at the time. Arthur Ashe Stadium had not yet been built, and there was a section for previous U.S. champions to sit and watch the matches. And I noticed Althea Gibson sitting next to Virginia Wade watching a match that was more important to me than the actual match. I don't even remember who was playing, but I saw Althea Gibson. 


Jordan: And you were a young reporter at the time, so you just you had access to some of these areas. So what happened? You walked up to her or. 


Cecil Harris: Well, I went down from the press box to that section. So during a changeover, I went down and I said, Miss Gibson, I'm a reporter from Gannett Newspapers, and I would love to interview you for a story, because it it really bothers me that not enough people know about you and your great accomplishments. And she said, Well, you're young man. How much are you paying for the story? And I said, We're not allowed to pay for stories, but a lot of my stories get picked up by USA Today, so it could get some national exposure for you and more people will know about your great career and all your great accomplishments. And she said, Well, I'm not going to grant you an interview because I'm not giving anything else away. Reflecting on my first and only encounter with Althea, I felt this was her polite way of telling me that she gave away so much and didn't get much in return. And it's hard to imagine that if Althea had been a man, she would have had as hard a time making a living. When both Arthur Ashe and Jackie Robinson retired from their sports. They were taken care of. They both had very good jobs waiting for them when they retired. But perhaps Althea said it best in her two autobiographies. She talked about how she stayed at the finest hotels. She met heads of state and dined in the finest restaurants. She wrote, quote, I am much richer in my knowledge and experience, but I have no money. And years later, when tennis finally paid its athletes for their work, there was a massive gap between what men and women were paid. And closing that gap for female athletes took decades. 


Cecil Harris: That's next time on all-American. All-American is a production of Witness Docs from Stitcher. This episode was written and reported by Albert Chen and Jordan Bell. Our mix engineer is Casey Holford, who also composed our original music. Our senior producer is Jordan Bell. Our story editor is Gianna Palmer. Our executive producer is Camille Stanley. Extra production support from Nora Ritchie. When we go there and Manolo Morales. Fact checking by Calvin. See bias. Legal support from Sidney Freeman and Thomas Burke at Davis, right, Tremaine. I'm your host, Cecil Harris. Don't forget to subscribe to the show and leave us a review wherever you listen to podcasts. Thanks for listening.