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Althea Gibson Points the Way

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I admire this photograph of Althea Gibson—and the notable woman it depicts–for several reasons. A news photo from our New York World-Telegram & Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, it shows Gibson at a tennis clinic reportedly attended by 500 students at Midwood High School.

Tennis talk - Althea Gibson, U.S. and Wimbledon tennis champion, gives some pointers on the game which has brought her international fame. Photo by Ed. Ford, 1957.
Tennis talk – Althea Gibson, U.S. and Wimbledon tennis champion, gives some pointers on the game which has brought her international fame... Photo by Ed. Ford, 1957.

Tennis racket in hand, index finger extended, Gibson is literally giving pointers to the group of students. By 1957, when the World Telegram & Sun staff photographer shot the photo, she was in a prime position to do so. She had won Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals earlier in the year, after having dominated at the French Open the previous year.

Gibson’s success on the court is impressive in its own right, but she is also credited with breaking new ground for black athletes in the world of international tennis. And tennis was not her only sport. Although her golf clubs are not visible here, by the early 1960s she became the first black player to compete on the women’s professional golf tour. (I understand she was also a talented singer and saxophonist—truly a Renaissance woman!)

Why else do I admire the photograph? Because, with Gibson’s strong profile in the foreground and the watching girls behind her, it suggests how a strong role model can inspire succeeding generations. In 1991, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) recognized Althea Gibson with the Theodore Roosevelt Award, its highest honor for individual atheletes. The first woman ever to receive the award, Gibson was cited for her “significant contributions to expanding opportunities for women and minorities through sports.”[1]

[1]  Frances Clayton Gray and Yanick Rice Lamb, Born to Win: The Authorized Biography of Althea Gibson (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2004), 183-184.

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  1. It brings tears to my eyes to know that, most likely, Althea was not allowed to change, shower, or enter the locker room used by other white female tennis players of her time. Yet, she so graciously shared her talents irrespective of color or national origin.

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