Over the course of her staggering career, Althea Gibson vanquished barrier after barrier standing in the way of African-American tennis players. In 1950, she became the first African-American to compete in the U.S. National Championships, the precursor to the U.S. Open. The 1956 French Championships saw her become the first African-American to win a Grand Slam title. In 1957, she won the women’s singles at Wimbledon, marking yet another first. Elizabeth II presented her with a trophy.
In spite of Gibson’s remarkable accomplishments, and the pivotal role that she played in the desegregation of her chosen sport, she has been honored with relatively few formal tributes—one exception being “a seniors cup in Croatia” that bears her name, as Sally H. Jacobs of the New York Times notes. But that changed in a major way this week, when the United States Tennis Association (USTA) unveiled a large sculpture of Gibson outside the Arthur Ashe Stadium at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York.
The statue was revealed on Monday, the first day of the 2019 U.S. Open. Sculptor Eric Goulder depicts Gibson emerging from a square granite block with her head held high, her gaze proud. The work weighs more than 18 tons, according to CNN’s Leah Asmelash.
“I had some 50 letters from those kids asking me why Althea was not recognized at the U.S. Open,” she says. “One of them wrote, ‘Can’t you even have a hot-dog stand in her name?’ And I’m thinking, yeah, I think we can do a little better than a hot-dog stand.”
In December of 2017, the USTA voted unanimously to honor Gibson with a statue at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, the home of the U.S. Open and a tribute to yet another tennis great. The Arthur Ashe Stadium, where the statue is located, is similarly named after a pioneering player.
“It’s about time, jolly good,” Angela Buxton, a former tennis professional who was Gibson’s doubles partner and close friend, said of the statue in an interview with Rhiannon Walker of the Undefeated last year.
“She did a great deal to improve the place of black people,” Buxton added. “Althea with her two ticker-tape parades still wasn’t allowed into a hotel where the whites sleep or a water fountain to drink where whites drink, but she helped to break that down.”
Gibson, who died in 2003, was born in South Carolina in 1927, but moved with her family to Harlem, New York, at a young age. There she showed an aptitude for sport, playing basketball and table tennis. The musician Buddy Walker noticed her skills and gave her a tennis racket; by the next year, she had won a local tournament sponsored by the American Tennis Association (ATA), an African-American organization.
It was during the ATA Nationals tournament in 1946 that Gibson was spotted by Hubert Eaton and Robert Johnson, two doctors who, as the Times explains, were “leaders in the ATA’s mission to find a player who could integrate the all-white U.S. Lawn Tennis Association competitions.” They worked with her to develop her skill, but Gibson’s applications to play in white tournaments were repeatedly turned down. Then, in 1950, the tennis champion Alice Marble, winner of 18 Grand Slam titles, wrote a scathing letter to the American Lawn Tennis magazine that condemned her sport for denying Gibson the chance to play.
“If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players,” Marble wrote, “it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge.”
The following month, Gibson was admitted to the U.S. national championships at Forest Hills. By 1952, she had claimed the number one spot on the women’s singles ranking, making her the first African-American player to achieve this milestone. But in spite of her skill, she was not always welcomed by the tennis community with open arms. She and Buxton, who is Jewish, became doubles partners in part because other players refused to pair with them.
“As I rose up the rankings, the girls on the circuit ignored me,” she told Sally Jones of the Telegraph last month. She remembers seeing Gibson sitting on the sidelines during the 1956 Wimbledon games. “I was thinking, ‘What the hell is she sitting there for?’” Buxton recalled. “One of the best players in the world and she wasn’t chosen.”
But Gibson was undeterred by the discrimination. She ultimately won 11 Grand Slam titles and, according to NPR’s Richard Gonzales, more than 50 singles and doubles championships. She tended to balk at the suggestion that she was a crusading representative of African-Americans—“I’m thinking of me and nobody else,” Gibson stated in 1957—perhaps because she was singularly focused on a specific goal. On the base of the new statue Gibson is quoted saying:
“I hope that I have accomplished just one thing: that I have been a credit to tennis and my country.”