If you ever have a chance to travel to New York and get closer to Flushing Meadows, knowing that the center court is named after Arthur Ashe and the complex is called Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, you will see that in one of the central areas and common of the complex a bust in honor and memory of Althea Gibson, a tennis reference that impelled those types of events with their example that have an effect and relevance in time that is impossible to extinguish.
Althea Gibson was the first black tennis player, of either sex, to be able to play an open tennis tournament, and the meaning of her figure is understood here. It was in 1950, now 70 years ago, at a time when racial segregation was not only part of society, but its legal system. It is true that the intensity of such segregation was not the same in all states, but the difference by race was an indivisible part of the cultural, social and economic setting of the United States.
To fully understand the spatio-temporal context and the corresponding value of starting to compete in a sport while being black, several dates and events must be noted that help us connect things. As its name evidences, racial segregation prevented blacks and whites from mixing in a multitude of spheres of society -education, housing, employment, transportation, leisure-, especially, as we say, in all the southern states, where the situation would continue. being latent years later, inheritance of a slavery system gradually abolished at the end of the 19th century.
In the field of sport, and specifically tennis, being black and wanting to compete in the world of tennis before 1950 was not possible. The black community was organized with its own association, the ATA (American Tennis Association), since African Americans could not enter and mix with whites. Gibson, who trained on private tracks because of the inability to access public tracks, won the ATA New York tournament six consecutive times.
However, access to certain doors, and more in those years, was not possible without the ‘sponsorship’ and sports guardianship of people with power or contacts. Gibson’s success in ATA tournaments caught the attention of Walter Johnson, a physician from Lynchburg, Virginia, an active member of the African American tennis community. Thus, under the patronage of Johnson, who would later become Arthur Ashe’s mentor, Gibson gained access to more advanced instruction and more important competitions, including a US Open that expressly prohibited blacks from competing.
While USTA rules officially prohibited racial or ethnic discrimination, in 1950 black players were not invited, but in response to the work of ATA leaders and former player Alice Marble, who published an open letter in the magazine. American Lawn Tennis, Gibson became the first black player to receive an invitation to the US Open, in those years known as the US Nationals.
A few years after debuting at the US Open for the first time, alongside white tennis players, racism continued to be a real problem in the lives of the American population. Not surprisingly, it was not until 1956 when the state declared racial segregation in restaurants, transport and schools illegal, after a series of mobilizations caused by the acquittal of the killers of Emmett Hill, a 15-year-old boy.
It took 14 years after Gibson’s debut at the US Open for President Lyndon Johnson to proclaim the ‘Civil Rights Act’ against racial segregation. And it is just in 1956, before the declaration of illegality when Althea Gibson closes the circle, in the middle of a very intense year in the fight for racial equality. Months before said unconstitutional declaration, Althea Gibson enters history lifting her first US Open, the first of the ten Grand Slam tournaments that she would raise.
Although she did not lead an especially active fight, the case of Althea Gibson is one of those that lights the later way. Opening roads and leaving them paved, asphalted and illuminated implies an incalculable value when surrounded by denial and submission. Glancing back and seeing a black girl in the middle of the streets of New York with a racket in hand creates an undoubted impact on those who like Arthur Ashe, Zina Garrison, Serena Williams or Cori Gauff share skin color and passion for this sport.