Happy Saturday, all. 57 years ago today, Althea Gibson became the first African-American to win the women's championship at Wimbledon.
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Before Althea Gibson could play -- much less win -- major tennis tournaments, another opponent had to be defeated. But Gibson had less control against this foe, which went by the name segregation.The first Black woman to win a major championship in sports. From her obituary in the New York Times:
Jackie Robinson played in the major leagues (1947) before a black was permitted to play tennis at the U.S. National Championships. But cracks soon developed in the lily-white sport. And finally, in 1950, when Gibson was 23 years old, she was permitted to play at the U.S. Nationals, becoming the first black to compete in the tournament
Her first appearance at Forest Hills brought the 5-foot-10 1/2-inch Gibson and what was inevitably described as her mannish game to the attention of the tennis public. A powerful if inconsistent player, the lean and muscular young woman had a dominating serve, and her long, graceful reach often stunned opponents.To make some money? A record album, a movie ("Horse Soldiers," with John Wayne and William Holden), and appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. She walked on at the age of 76 on September 28, 2003.
Over the next half dozen years, Gibson became a fixture on the tennis circuit, playing Wimbledon for the first time in 1951, and earning a ranking as high as No. 7 in the United States, but she was never able to win consistently.
Gibson, who spent two years as a physical education instructor at Lincoln University in Jefferson, Mo., became so disenchanted with her failure to break through to the top ranks that she considered abandoning tennis and entering the Army.
Then in the fall of 1955 the State Department selected her for a good-will tennis tour of Asia and the Far East, and the experience seemed to renew her spirit and inspire her game. In 1956 she won 16 of her first 18 tournaments, including the French Open, her first title at a Grand Slam event. But once again victory in the singles championships eluded her at Wimbledon and Forest Hills although she had been favored to win both. Gibson did team with Angela Buxton to win the Wimbledon doubles championship in 1956.
Buxton became Gibson's doubles partner in an "odd way," as she remembered it in 1996. "Since Althea was black, she was having a difficult time getting a doubles partner in America," she said, "and since I was Jewish, I was having a similar problem in England. So we just hooked up. And won!"
Gibson was determined that her 1957 singles performances would be different, and after losing the final of the Australian Open, she did not lose another match all year. Passing up the clay court distraction of the French Open to concentrate on tuning up on grass courts in England, she again entered the tournament as the favorite, but this time she did not falter, defeating Darlene Hard in the final. "At last," she said, "at last," as she accepted the trophy from the Queen of England.
She later wrote in her book: "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."
Having won the most coveted title in tennis, Gibson continued her winning ways in the United States, rolling through the national championship at Forest Hills and settling an old score in the final, defeating Brough, who had eliminated her in her first national seven years before.
After being named the outstanding woman athlete of the year in a poll of Associated Press sports editors, Gibson repeated her victories in 1958, then, under pressure from her family to make some money from her talent, she announced her retirement from amateur tennis.
We're remembering the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on its fiftieth anniversary, and it doesn't hurt to remember that many smaller battles had to take place before that milestone was reached. And, since the Ladies' Final for 2014 will be played at Wimbledon today, shortly after this diary posts, there is no better time to remember Althea Gibson.