This year, Althea Gibson was not on our "editorial horizon" until I communicated with Shelia Curry for last month's Feature Interview with the Executive Director of the Black Tennis Hall of Fame. One of the photos of her featured an Althea Gibson monument and a gentleman I didn't recognize. Shelia was kind enough to forward me his contact information. He is Glenn Gilliam, a man with a mission: To preserve Althea's legacy. Through him, I was able to discover this nice Rex Miller documentary ALTHEA.

I'm all about preserving tennis history. Unfortunately, very few young tennis players have ever heard of Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, or going even further back in time, Helen Wills, Suzanne Lenglen, and Bill Tilden.

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Twenty-five years ago, Leslie Allen, (center: Althea, Leslie to the right of her), was one of a group of black teenagers who worked with tennis great Althea Gibson in a weeklong Dorchester training camp at the Sportsmen's Tennis Club in a camp organized in honor of Gibson.

Leslie Allen, ATA, NCAA & WTA Champion who is featured in the documentary ALTHEA, said, "It was a very inspiring weekend. It was the first time I had ever walked into a tennis club and everyone didn't turn their heads and stare. Most other places, I had to explain why I was there. But in the Sportsmen's Club, there was no baggage. I didn't have to explain myself to anyone." (Quoted from an article in boston.com)

Allen goes on, "Althea was amazing. She assessed each one of us. She didn't hesitate to tell us what she thought. She took one look at my wingspan and said, `You should be all over the net.' Up to that point, the only time I came to the net was to shake hands. I wasn't brave enough to go up there. That week with Althea got me over the hump."

"I met Althea in the late sixties in Newark, New Jersey with Charley Lundren and George Bacso doing an intercity youth tennis clinic.  I don’t have a picture with her as she was busy with kids at that time. She was an inspiration for me to start my first tennis non-profit organization called the New Jersey Shore Tennis Association (NJSTA) in 1968 in Monmouth County, NJ."

Neil Johnson

Escondido, California

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Podcast "Althea-Queen of the Court"

 

The episode explores Althea's life and legacy, from her childhood as a street kid to her days dominating the sports world, to the late-in-life struggle to survive after her community turned its back on her.

Joining the episode is special guest Lenny Simpson, a former professional tennis player who was coached and mentored by Althea as a young man. Today, he is the founder of One Love Tennis in Wilmington.

In an extended interview, Lenny talks about his memories of the player and person Althea was, the struggles she faced, and how she changed the game for every Black athlete that followed her.

WHAT TOOK YOU SO LONG, CHAMP?

by Rich Neher

My email blasts on October 8 and 23 resulted in more people and information coming to me, like Jim Hendrix who in turn pointed me toward an even bigger Althea Gibson fan: Lenny Simpson. Jim's dad was fortunate to play tennis in Wilmington, North Carolina, when Fred Perry, Althea, and countless others benefited from the generosity of a certain Dr. Hubert Eaton who had a tennis court at 1406 Orange Street in Wilmington and made that court available to everyone interested in learning the sport. But more about this in a minute.

One of the narrator's in ALTHEA said that Althea Gibson was an inspiration for ALL Americans. After watching the documentary I felt grateful and inspired myself. Since November is "National Gratitude Month" I thought what better time to write about this legend of tennis?

The article is quoting from a Tennis Channel short film, Lindsay Gibbs/ThinkProgress, Leslie Allen, Star News, Lenny Simpson's websites lennysimpsontennis.com and one-love-tennis.org, Rex Miller, and his documentary ALTHEA, and the Podcast "Althea, Queen of the Court."

Glenn Gilliam and Shelia Curry

Althea Gibson was the first black player, female or male, to compete in the U.S. Open, which was then played at Forest Hills and called the U.S. Nationals. That was in 1950 when the USLTA's color barrier against Black players was still in full swing. Why was she then allowed to play the Open?

 

According to former ATA, NCAA & WTA champion Leslie Allen, a White woman, Alice Marble, spoke up. Allen wrote June 18, 2020, in The Undefeated, "It took a White woman to integrate tennis. In 1950, Alice Marble, by then a four-time US Open singles champion, wrote a scathing open letter (the Twitter of her day) chastising the sport and its practice of segregation and exclusion of Gibson. Marble wrote that Gibson is a fellow tennis player and, as such, deserving of the same chance I had to prove myself. In response to being publicly shamed, the USLTA relented and in 1950 invited Althea Gibson to play at Forest Hills in what’s now known as the US Open. She eventually won consecutive US Open and Wimbledon titles in 1957 and 1958."

Winning two GrandSlams in 1957 earned Gibson a spot on the cover of the New York Times and even her own ticker-tape parade.

 

Lindsay Gibbs writes about the Rex Miller documentary in a ThinkProgress article, "Gibson was born to sharecropper parents on a South Carolina cotton farm in 1927 and grew up in Harlem, where her competitiveness was honed through street games — if you didn’t win, you didn’t get to play, so Gibson learned to win quickly. In the documentary, her practice partner Bob Davis said that her rough upbringing made her “instinctively aggressive.” Her father had wanted Althea to be a boy, so raised her as such, even taking her up to the rooftops where the two would physically fight."

Mitch Kutner, President of the International POP Tennis Association (POP is the rebranding of the classic game of Paddle Tennis) writes, "Paddle Tennis led Althea Gibson directly to Tennis and her iconic career. 

Luckily the street the Gibson family lived on in Harlem was classified as a Play Area and was closed off to traffic. The residents set up a POP Tennis court on the street with an old Tennis net. As a young child, Gibson played a lot of POP on the streets of Harlem and excelled, eventually winning the New York City Women's Paddle Tennis singles Championship in 1939. Around that time, a known local Jazz musician Buddy Walker, noticed her amazing talent and athleticism playing Paddle. He was so impressed, he brought her to the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club to try Tennis. She did very well that day, so well that in 1940, Walker and a group of neighbors raised money to cover her membership there and all of her Tennis lessons. The rest is history.

Kutner continues, "Even after moving out of Harlem and her iconic success years later, she frequently returned to NYC to do volunteer POP Tennis clinics for children back in Harlem. On a few occasions in later years, Gibson also made appearances at the legendary Stuyvesant Town Paddle Tennis courts in Manhattan to support the game and its players during big NY City tournaments. The same courts that Bobby Riggs also played Paddle on in his younger & middle years. We’re proud to have Althea Gibson as a great part of our game's history."

The above photo and the one on the right are from the Tennis Channel's 3-minute Feature Story that aired last year during the US Open.

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“I have never regarded myself as a crusader. I don't consciously beat the drums for any cause, not even the negro in the United States.”

Althea Gibson

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“I read a lot of books about Althea. I’ve always dreamt of being on the same level as her. I just really, really am glad I have an opportunity to be able to play… Althea makes me happy and excited to be black.”

Serena Williams

I met her in 1974 in Portland, Oregon at Lewis and Clark College where she put on a clinic. Our first son Christopher had just been born and I remember Althea holding him and how big her hands were!  She was charming.

 

I was a tennis pro in Portland and became a tennis promoter and wound up bringing three Davis Cup Ties to Portland....in '81, '84, and a Davis Cup Final vs Russia in 2007 and numerous exhibitions with Connors, Lendl, McEnroe, Becker among others.  I was the Tournament Director of the Pacific Coast Indoors which became the Louisiana Pacific Invitational for 16 years which brought many great men and women to Portland to play at the Irvington Tennis Club and Eastmoreland Racquet Club as well.

Brian Sidney Parrott

Charles City, Iowa

Never met her but I am a fan.  Her painting has hung at the end of the hall in our clubhouse for over 35 years, along with a picture of Pancho Gonzalez and others.  She was special, indeed; very worthy of a special in your publication.

Jim Thompson

Oakland, California

Althea Gibson and her doubles partner, Angela Buxton

I knew Angela Buxton through the lessons I had with Jimmy “C.M.” Jones in London in the 70’s. She was always there overseeing. She was a focused, determined and matter of fact lady whether it was the tennis program the two of them ran in North London or her writing. She spent her life thoroughly involved in the background of tennis, keeping the many connections with the LTA and ITF. She never discussed her relationship with Althea, which I take as a compliment to the both of them, as she was not the type to brandish any of her accomplishments.

 

Tennis today would not be where it is unless many of our past champions, most of which we never have heard of, did not continue their love of the game in so many incremental ways, that when combined, give us what we have today. Unfortunately, most of them have passed away with their stories and love of the game.

Andy Durham

Lakeland, Florida

Althea Gibson and Millicent Miller

Lindsay Gibbs quote Rex Miller, "The inspiration came from discovering a picture in storage that had hung on my childhood bedroom wall. It showed two dark-skinned women on the grass courts of the Merion Cricket Club outside of Philadelphia, where they were playing a tennis tournament despite the fact that they weren’t allowed to be members of the club.

One of the women was Gibson, the other was my mother, Millicent Miller, who won only one game against Gibson, but always regaled her friends and family with the story of their match."

Upon rediscovering the photo, Miller immediately began researching Gibson, and by the end of the day was so enamored that he was determined to bring her story to light.

Althea Gibson's album "sings." To listen to the tunes of a tennis legend with an amazing voice, go here.

Wikipedia: A talented vocalist and saxophonist—and runner-up in the Apollo Theater's amateur talent contest in 1943—she made her professional singing debut at W. C. Handy's 84th birthday tribute at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in 1957. An executive from Dot Records was impressed with her performance and signed her to record an album of popular standards. Althea Gibson Sings was released in 1959, and Gibson performed two of its songs on The Ed Sullivan Show in May and July of that year.

Way back in 1960 in St. Louis, I was a young Ballboy for an exhibition for Althea Gibson and Karol Fageros in the famed, Keil Auditorium. Being on the shiny wood court as a lil kid, where the St. Louis Hawks of the NBA played was unbelievable. I vividly still remember the two ladies dressed in all-white tennis skirts and their shapely legs. Althea seemed taller and thin in stature. Both players had multiple racquets and I think racquet face covers…I was in awe. It was a memorable experience to be so close to tennis stars, especially professional-like women who were both attractive and athletic. I don’t remember them talking but had a smile and were business like.

 

I can’t really recall how they played, skillset or who won because I was chasing balls and under pressure of not messing up while on the move. Growing up following the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, I thought of groundballs and not making an error in the infield as a second baseman. No unforced errors as a ballboy. So, I guess, Althea Gibson made an impact and had an influence on me. It was a special moment, not only for me but other juniors friends who had the privilege to be up-close to a future legend of not only tennis but in all of sports and culture.

 

Leo Estopare

Wichita, Kansas

THE WILMINGTON, NORTH CAROLINA CONNECTION

Lendward (Lenny) Simpson of Wilmington, NC, is a retired African-American professional tennis player and founder of One Love Tennis, a tennis and academic enrichment program for at-risk kids (Wikipedia). Simpson was introduced to tennis in 1953 at age 5 at the nearby tennis court of physician, tennis champion, and civil rights activist Hubert A. Eaton by Althea Gibson who lived with the Eatons and was practicing there.

Here's the story in Lenny Simpson's own words. 

Our family lived next door to 1406 Orange Street, the house of Dr. Hubert Eaton, Sr. and Celeste Burnett Eaton. They had this clay-court where Dr. Eaton invited people to play. I was 5 years of age and was often hiding under the shrubs surrounding the court watching all the action - and there was a lot of it! Most of the time, 12-14 people played there every day. And they had so much fun.

For about 5 months I was watching that tall Black woman beating up on everybody. There was something special about her. Every day I saw our neighbor Nathaniel Jackson dressed in a white t-shirt, white shorts, white socks, white shoes, and a racquet in his hand. He would disappear. I'd say 'where is he going dressed like that?', every day around the same time. He'd always come back with a Coca-Cola in his hand. I asked him where he got the Coke from? He said 'right around the corner at the tennis court'. I said 'how can I get some of that soda?' He said, 'you have to get your parents' permission to go to the tennis court to get this Coca-Cola'. 

"Lendward,

What took you so long, champ?"

Well, finally I got permission from my parents and Mr. Jackson took me to the tennis court. It was exciting when we went through the big gate together. He introduced me to everyone, mostly adults. The last person he introduced me to was Althea Gibson. She said, "Lendward, what took you so long, Champ?" 

Very gracious! I was surprised to learn that she had been watching me under the shrubs all that time. She then asked me, "Do you have a racquet? Here, take my racquet." She gave me her wooden 'Harry C Lee' racquet and I started to play at age 5.

THE 'BLACK COUNTRY CLUB' OF WILMINGTON

Dr. Eaton's court was known as our black country club in Wilmington because we certainly could not go to any of the country clubs or any of the tennis facilities in Wilmington, North Carolina. Two blocks from here were the New Hanover High School tennis courts. However, we could not play on them. Dr. Eaton's court stood for freedom, justice, equality, hope, courage, being proud.

Players came together, met friends. People learned tennis surrounded by incredible people and role models.

Althea Gibson and Dr. Eaton

Althea Gibson lived at the Eaton home from 1946 until 1949. Lenny Simpson purchased the property with donations, including a $50,000 contribution from basketball legend and Wilmington homeboy Michael Jordan. Lenny and his wife Joann are restoring the property to look as it did when it was a community gathering place. It will house the offices for One Love Tennis, their nonprofit that provides sports instruction and academic support for at-risk children. Gibson’s former bedroom upstairs will be the academic enrichment center.

Lenny and his non-profit ONE LOVE have also refurbished the tennis court. Some details, like the original lockers that he used as a child, are still there. He’s planning some new additions, too, like a greenhouse to grow vegetables. The USTA helped with funding for the court renovation.

Tennis court before renovation

Tennis court after renovation

Lenny Simpson continues.

When I was 9 years old, I met Arthur Ashe. He was on Dr. Eaton and Dr. Johnson's Junior Development Team. They picked the best talent and athletes and took them to Dr. Johnson's home in Lynchburg, Virginia, where they played 30-40 ATA season tournaments every summer. The players stayed at Dr. Johnson's home and Althea Gibson used to be on that team, too. She lived and trained with the Eatons but the REAL training happened in Lynchburg. Fred Perry came to play exhibition matches against Dr. Johnson and the doctor actually beat him once.

When trying to buy Althea Gibson's  book "I Always Wanted To Be Somebody" I realized the star power of this woman. Out of print, the book goes used for real money.

On eBay you can buy a used paperback for $85 but on Amazon you have to shell out $869.97 for a used hardcover version. Wow!

The title of the book comes from Gibson's quote: "I always wanted to be somebody. If I made it, it's half because I was game enough to take a lot of punishment along the way and half because there were a lot of people who cared enough to help me." 

"WE ARE HOLDING KIDS OF COLOR BACK"

At the end of our interview, I asked Lenny his opinion on how to attract more Black Americans into tennis. Here's his reply.

I think it's gotta come from Junior Development Training Centers. Young Black male players are missing right now because we don't have any star power Black players anymore. No Black male role models. Tennis is not a household name or sport. The women's side is OK but the male is not. Tennis is not recognized as cool as football or basketball.

Also, kids of color that are gifted athletes are not getting invited to training centers. We need to go after kids that are hungry and want to play and become champions. But since tennis is not affordable for most kids, we are holding kids of color back.

Althea Gibson at US Nationals

Lindsay Gibbs writes, "After her playing career came to an end, Gibson recorded a jazz album, sang on the Ed Sullivan show, broke the color barrier in women’s golf, acted in a John Wayne film, and performed with the Harlem Globetrotters, but was still considered an outsider and lacked allies within the tennis community. Her opportunities for sponsorship were limited, and when pro tennis was launched in 1968 and she attempted to make a comeback, she was relegated to qualification tournaments where there was no money guaranteed, despite owning a combined 11 major titles in singles in doubles.

Gibson was completely broke later in her life and contemplated suicide, before her friend and former doubles partner Angela Buxton took her story public and enlisted the tennis world to come to Gibson’s rescue, collecting donations that totaled nearly a million dollars.

Althea Gibson passed away September 8, 2003 and is buried at Rosedale Cemetery in Orange, New Jersey.

She’s our Jackie Robinson. Without her, we might not have had
Ashe, Zina, Katrina, Lori McNeil, MaliVai, Venus or Serena.

Rodney Harmon

Atlanta, Georgia

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