Althea Gibson: A peerless pioneer
She just wanted to be somebody. For Althea Gibson, it was an equally simple and impossible quest. She had the talent, certainly. She was, as she many times described herself, “a born athlete.” But she also was born into a time when the color of your skin could limit your opportunities to showcase your talents. And while the effort to achieve “somebody” status is very much your own; the official recognition invariably comes from others. It’s hard to become somebody when nobody can see you.
Happily, dreams are without parameters, and Gibson never stopped dreaming. Yes, she was Black and she was a woman at a time when the sporting world—and for that matter, the greater part of the world at large—saw those two things as reason enough to exclude. Yet Gibson held tight to the belief that if you had a champion’s fire burning inside you, no outside influence could dampen the flame. She believed that with dreams and desire as fuel, that fire might just become so bright that it couldn’t be ignored. And she was right.
Three years after the great Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, this brilliant young woman, born to sharecroppers in South Carolina and raised in Harlem, cast her singular glow upon the sport of tennis as the first African-American to compete in the U.S. National Championships. Her 1950 debut at Forest Hills at age 23 was at once historic and prophetic. When a violent thunderstorm interrupted her second-round match against that year’s Wimbledon champion Louise Brough, a bolt of lighting separated one of the monumental stone eagles from its perch atop the stadium, sending it crashing to the ground. Afterward, Gibson said: “It may have been an omen that times were changing.”
Change came gradually, as did success.
A year after her Forest Hills debut, Gibson became the first Black athlete to play at Wimbledon. She won her first Grand Slam title at Roland Garros in 1956. The following year—and the year after that--she won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships. Gibson won eleven Grand Slam titles in all, adding six doubles crowns to her singles success. But of course champions—true champions—are defined by more than trophy counts. They are defined by fortitude and courage, by heart and desire. All of these things were personified in Gibson. All of these things are required of pioneers.
Tennis is, of course, an individual sport, but perhaps no one has ever been so alone on a tennis court as Althea Gibson. She was a trailblazer of great talent and greater courage. Like Robinson, she was flesh-and-blood proof that the color of one’s skin ought not to limit one’s dreams. She was the first of her race to compete at such a high level and being first—at anything—is never an easy task. She dreamed and she dared with equal conviction. Because of that, she became the epitome of all things possible.
It’s too easy to say that every African-American player who followed owes Gibson a debt of gratitude. The larger picture is that long before African-Americans and women flourished in fields as diverse as medicine and law and science and politics, there was this young woman, blessed with remarkable talent and even more remarkable fortitude who dared to say, “I belong.”
Through her talents and tenacity, Gibson opened doors and opened minds. That is the highest of achievements. Because of that, we remember Althea Gibson as somebody. Somebody special.
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