by iampunha | 7/06/2008 08:00:00 AM
The generic biography of so many people reads as follows:

"Barred from competing with peers for decades, this black person dominated their field once allowed to."

I have written on race relations, civil rights and the lives that should be more fully examined so many times that I imagine many of my readers must think I am black.

Because I have deliberately sought out women and topics of particular interest to women, I imagine many of my readers must think I am female.

I am neither.

I am human.

And so was Althea Gibson, who won Wimbledon 51 years ago today, becoming the first visibly black person to win the tennis championship.

For Sir Paul McCartney and John Lennon, who met on the day Gibson won Wimbledon.

And for Barry Winchell, one of too many victims of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," a policy that encourages the military to not change to meet the demands of the times.

(The original text of this article first ran here.)

Quick: name four black female tennis players.

Ten years ago, most sports fans would have had a hard time naming even one. But long before the Williams sisters arrived on the stage, one woman was busily working to show the world that the notion that black people couldn't play a mental sport such as tennis was the sort of ignorance Althea Gibson would quickly cause to run away in panic.

Althea Gibson was, during the 1950s, simply one of the best tennis players on the planet. The woman was not allowed to play in mainstream (read: white-only) tennis events, so she went about winning the American Tennis Association national championship. She dominated that tournament. Or, to be more specific, she was more consistent and dominating in the 1940s and 1950s on what of the tennis scene was available to her than the Boston Celtics were in the NBA during their dynastic run. The Celtics won eight straight.

Gibson won 10.

Some years into her utter domination of the ATA circuit, enough white tennis players took notice of Gibson that former US National Champion Alice Marble as much as accused the powers that be of bigotry:

In the most important letter to the editor in tennis history, Marble explained to the readers of the American Lawn Tennis magazine, that “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 players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts...[If Gibson is not allowed to compete], “there would be an uneradicable mark against a game to which I have devoted most of my life, and I would be bitterly ashamed...If we truly believe in sportsmanship, then Miss Gibson deserves to play.”

Gibson then went on to become the first black person to win Wimbledon. She did it twice. At 30 years old, an age at which many tennis players are fading, Gibson won the Wimbledon and US Open singles titles, the US Open mixed doubles title and the Australian Open and Wimbledon doubles titles. She claimed 11 Grand Slam titles in three years. Most modern tennis superstars could hope for 11 titles in a career. Pete Sampras had 14 over 10 years. Rod Laver had 11 over 10 years. Billie Jean King captured 22 titles over 15 years.

It seems not much of a stretch to assert that if Gibson had been able to play at Wimbledon, the US Open, the French Open and the Australian Open starting in the 1940s, she would have done a lot better than her already-impressive 11 titles.

It gets better, though. Gibson, in addition to being a tennis sensation, wrote her autobiography, recorded an album, appeared in The Horse Soldiers and played in the Ladies Professional Golf Association at the not-so-tender age of 37.

But it, again, gets better. Not content to sit around existing as the first black member of the LPGA, the first black Wimbledon winner or a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Gibson served the public in a variety of functions. She was appointed New Jersey state commissioner on athletics, a position she held for 10 years before moving on to, among others, the governor's council on physical fitness.

What was? Yes. What could have been? Undeniably.

But what could have been wouldn't have been, perhaps, had it not been for meeting two men in the entire world who would help her. The first was this man:

Born August 25, 1927, in Silver, SC, Gibson, a right-hander, grew up in Harlem. Her family was poor, but she was fortunate in coming to the attention of Dr. Walter Johnson, a Lynchburg, VA, physician who was active in the black tennis community. He became her patron, as he would later be for Arthur Ashe, the black champion at Forest Hills (1968) and Wimbledon (1975). Through Dr. Johnson, Gibson received better instruction and competition, and contacts were set up with the USTA to inject her into the recognized tennis scene.

The second was this man:

In 1946, a well-to-do black doctor, Hubert Eaton of Wilmington, NC, took her in to help advance her career. Barred from public courts because she was black, she practiced on Dr. Eaton's backyard court.

The history of minorities working against oppression is full of people who didn't get the breaks few others did get. It is fortunate that Gibson was so lucky as to come across two serendipitously graced men and unfortunate that there are leagues of people about whom all we know is that they never got a chance.



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