The U.S. Open honored Althea Gibson at the championship opening ceremony on the 50th anniversary of Ms. Gibson becoming the first Black woman to win the United States championship in tennis. She was finally inducted into the U.S. Open's Court of Champions. Participants in the ceremony included Aretha Franklin; Sheila Johnson, BET co-founder and WNBA owner, former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun; ex-WNBA star Cynthia Cooper; Winter Olympians Vonetta Flowers and Debi Thomas; tennis player Zina Garrison; astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison; Olympic track and field champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee; Traci Green, the first Black tennis coach at Harvard; and actress Phylicia Rashad.
Gibson, who won 11 Grand Slam titles, died in 2003 at the age of 76.
"I have never felt that as a sport and as a society that we have done justice to Althea," USTA president Jane Brown Grimes said. "I feel finally with this opening night celebration we are."
As a child, Grimes spent summers on Long Island and attended the U.S. Nationals at Forest Hills, where she watched Gibson play.
"I was absolutely awe-struck by her," Grimes said. "Her serve was poetry."
Althea Gibson excelled at tennis with the help of benefactors like musician Buddy Walker, boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, and Black doctors Hubert Eaton and Robert Johnson. But she was generally talented. She could also drive a golf ball 325 yards and played golf professionally. She could sing. She even acted in a movie, a John Wayne western.
Ms. Gibson dominated Black tennis competitions until 1950, when she was finally allowed to enter the U.S. National championships. Her participation was stoked by the protest of the then current U.S. National champion, Alice Marble. Ms. Marble wrote an editorial for the July 1, 1950, edition of American Lawn Tennis Magazine which said,
"Miss Gibson is over a very cunningly wrought barrel, and I can only hope to loosen a few of its staves with one lone opinion. If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it's also time we acted a little more like gentlepeople 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. [If Gibson were not given the opportunity to compete] then there is an uneradicable mark against a game to which I have devoted most of my life, and I would be bitterly ashamed."
Gibson went on to won 11 major titles in the late 1950s, including singles titles at the French Open (1956), Wimbledon (1957, 1958) and the U.S. Open (1957, 1958), as well as three straight doubles crowns at the French Open (1956, 1957, 1958).
In 1957, she was the first Black to be voted by the Associated Press as its Female Athlete of the Year.
Ms. Gibson endured the tribulations of segregated America even as an exalted athlete. One hotel refused to book reservations for a luncheon in her honor. She claimed not to care about these things.
"I tried to feel responsibilities to Negroes, but that was a burden on my shoulders. Now I'm playing tennis to please me, not them."
"Someone once wrote that the difference between me and Jackie Robinson is that he thrived on his role as a Negro battling for equality whereas I shy away from it. That man read me quite correctly."
After Ms. Gibson quit tennis, she became New Jersey State Commissioner of Athletics in 1975, a post she held for 10 years. She then served on the State's Athletics Control Board until 1988 and the Governor's Council on Physical Fitness until 1992.
Gibson won her first Grand Slam doubles title at the 1956 Wimbledon with partner, Angela Buxton. Ms. Buxton was Jewish. And she may have felt a certain kinship with Ms. Gibson as the media minimized their accomplishments at Wimbledon with the headline, "Minorities Win." Years later, as Ms. Gibson was silently suffering in poverty, declining health and suicidal thoughts, Ms. Buxton came to her aid.
“Because she was so penniless until the last few years of her life, because she was so ill, she phoned me one day to say she was going to do herself in,” said Buxton. “I said ‘just hang on a minute I’m cooking some onions. Let me switch that off and we’ll talk about it’.”
In 1995, Buxton spent $1,500 of her own money to support her friend before making an appeal on her behalf in the magazine Tennis Week, highlighting her hardship. “I didn’t want my name on it in case she got cross with me and wouldn’t speak to me,” she said. “She could get on her high horse very easily."
Althea Gibson's mailbox started to bulge with envelopes full of checks from around the world. Eventually nearly $1 million came in.
Despite the highlights of her life, it is said that Ms. Gibson died reclusive, depressed and bitter. But she didn't die unappreciated.
Those that knew Althea Gibson compare her tennis abilities to the Williams sisters. Ms. Gibson, like the Williams sisters, was tall, athletic and dominant. When it was announced the Williams sisters would play Monday evening, the Williams sisters embraced the honor as the next step in building a minority base in the sport.
“We’ve come a long way,” Serena Williams told USA Today. “Obviously, there’s still a space to go. It takes time. It takes people like Althea and Zina and Venus and myself to keep it out there and to keep fighting and playing."
Both of the Williams sisters won Monday night.