By Randy Walker
It was 62 years ago on August 28, 1950, when the U.S. Championships – the modern-day US Open – broke the color barrier as Althea Gibson became the first black player to compete. As documented in my book ON THIS DAY IN TENNIS HISTORY ($19.95, New Chapter Press, www.TennisHistoryBook.com), Gibson won her first round match at the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills, defeating Barbara Knapp of Britain 6-2, 6-2 and set up a second-round match with Wimbledon champion Louise Brough. Wrote Allison Danzig of the New York Times of Gibson’s win over Knapp, “Miss Gibson carried the attack forward continually to score on her volleys with a big crowd gathered around the court.”
Sidney Wood, the 1931 Wimbledon champion and long-time tennis entrepreneur and personality, described some of the back-room dealings that lead to Gibson being allowed to play in the U.S. Championships in his posthumously published memoir THE WIMBLEDON FINAL THAT NEVER WAS…AND OTHER TENNIS TALES FROM A BYGONE ERA ($15.95, New Chapter Press, available here on amazon.com http://www.amazon.com/The-Wimbledon-Final-That-Never/dp/0942257847/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1346070006&sr=8-1&keywords=the+wimbledon+final+that+never+was
Wood’s chapter “The Case of Althea Gibson” is excerpted here:
When Althea Gibson had become a championship-mettle competitor in 1950, five all-white top 10 tennis players: Frank Shields, Don McNeill, Cliff Sutter, Gil Hall and I, whom I’d finally “persuaded” the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association to appoint to its 25-member executive committee, could not believe their ears on hearing an almost whispered motion proposed to bar Althea from the upcoming U.S. Nationals at Forest Hills and prevent her from becoming the first black player to compete at the highest level of American tennis.
There had been no prior discussion of any such idea, at least not for us to know of, but at the far end of the long luncheon table at the Vanderbilt Hotel (then the official USLTA hostelry) there had been a star chamber get-together sustained by the customary double Manhattan aperitifs, and although it seems inconceivable that any presumably mature Association fathers could be hatching this dumb plot, there was no question as to their intent. I am constrained to add that Russell Kingman, the USLTA president, was abroad at the time, and I can’t dismiss the suspicion that the meeting was timed to precede his return and certain veto. Russell was one of the rare breed of truly altruistic sports executives, also a booster for my own and other progressive help-the-game ideas.
Up to that time, none of our five guys had reason to qualify as minority activists, but we admired as well as liked Althea, and our sense of fair play was rudely affronted. In honesty, perhaps it was not entirely the bald inequity of the case, but righteous indignation at being railroaded by the badge-wearer fraternity that caused me to jump up and ask how they could be unaware of the recently enacted State anti-bias law – and to warn them that they could expect to read their names in every sports-page headline. Their absurdly naïve legal stance was that being a member of a USLTA sectional association was a prerequisite to competing in the Nationals! As has been forever typical of ladder-rung advances in sports officialdom, any opinions of mere athletes are rarely heeded. This could explain why I have seldom been the ruling party’s favorite player.
That September from the northwest sidewall of the stadium at Forest Hills, Shields, McNeill, Hall and I had one eye on the stadium match and the other on Althea playing Louise Brough on the adjoining grandstand court. While few players like to see the No. 2 seed lose, and especially Louise, we were stirred when Althea came within two points of a huge upset.
Gibson not only broke the color barrier at the U.S. Championships that year, but went on, of course, to win two women’s singles titles at Forest Hills as well as two at Wimbledon and another in France at Roland Garros. She could afford a laugh at the outrageous act of bigotry that had been considered. But as novelist James Baldwin cried out, “To be a Negro in this country and constantly be made aware of it is to be in a rage most of your life.”
In 1990, 32 years after her second victory at Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals, I found myself sitting next to her in the Royal Box at Wimbledon watching the final. Life goes on.