The Legacy of Althea Gibson

athngbsnTennis fans worldwide tuned in to the U.S. Open in September and saw stars such as Marin Cilic and Serena Williams trounce their rivals in the last Grand Slam event of the season. The most important action, however, took place before the matches even started, when U.S. tennis officials honored Althea Gibson.

Most fans were not around when Ms. Gibson won the U.S. Open in 1957, but that was not her first triumph. She won the French Open in 1956, the Australian Open in 1957, and Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958. She was the first black champion in Wimbledon history and the first to win any major tennis title.

Gibson’s record is remarkable enough from a purely athletic standpoint, but it’s truly amazing when one considers the times. Her championships came during the 1950s, the era of racism and segregation also known as “Jim Crow.” This was before the civil rights movement and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

While the lynching of African-Americans was still taking place in certain areas of America, Althea Gibson was hanging out in some of the most exclusive regions of the world and playing tennis before white audiences at private clubs.

Althea Gibson still faced discrimination because of her race, and even some African-Americans discouraged her from competing in tennis. Undaunted, she focused on her game and performance. Her participation in tennis was not due to Title IX or some other government program.

Althea Gibson was empowered by her own integrity, strength and sheer perseverance. She knew that even if she applied herself and tuned out all of the distractions, she would be the best she could be. And at the time she was clearly the best woman on the tennis court.

This year’s U.S. Open featured the great Serena Williams taking on 18-year-old sensation Tyler Townsend, who comes from a rough part of Chicago and was launching her professional career that very night.

Ms. Townsend could be on her way to becoming the next Serena or Venus Williams.  That would be a great achievement, but it would be tougher still for her to become the next Althea Gibson. Having made her mark in tennis, Gibson moved on to golf, shattering more stereotypes and breaking more barriers.

In 1964, at the age of 37, Althea Gibson became the first African-American woman on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour.  This came at time when she was still excluded from many hotels because of her race. And at some clubs in both the North and South, she was not allowed to compete. Althea Gibson did not let that stop her. For five years she was one of the top LPGA money winners.

Golf or tennis, the lessons of Althea Gibson remain clear for our African-American young people. They should not let anybody tell them what sport to play, and they should tolerate no excuses. They may still face discrimination and stereotypes but can prevail through sheer effort.

Like Althea Gibson, they should avoid entanglements with drugs, destructive behavior, and the antics of celebrities. If they do all that and apply themselves, there is no limit to what they can achieve on the court. Some good signs are already appearing.

At this year’s U.S. Open, a group of aspiring young black tennis players from underserved communities in Chicago viewed the match from the nosebleed section of the Arthur Ashe Tennis Complex. Like Serena Williams, Tyler Townsend and most of all Althea Gibson, they have their eyes on the prize.

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