ALTHEA GIBSON was born in South Carolina, but at three years old she was bundled off to Harlem to live with her aunt Sally, who sold bootleg whiskey. That’s the story as she tells it in I Always Wanted to Be Somebody, and we have no reason to doubt it. Althea’s memory faded by the end; she was said to be unable to recall the details of a single tennis match she played. “I don’t remember everything I did, or when, or how,” she said in a lucid moment not long before her death. But there is enough verifiable fact already on the record to get us where we need to go.
She was born in Silver, South Carolina, on August 25, 1927, to parents Daniel and Annie. She weighed eight pounds. She spent much of her youth in Harlem with her younger brother and three sisters, and a couple of years in Philadelphia—most likely 1934 and 1935—with her aunt Daisy. This was not unusual at the height of the Great Depression. Families dispatched their children to live with relatives who still had work, and food to eat.
In Harlem, beginning in about 1936, Althea lived at 135 West 143rd Street, between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, in what are now called the Frederick E. Samuel Apartments. The brick is red from a new coat of paint, but in those days it was brown. Fire escapes run up the front of the building, as they did when Althea lived there.
She and her friend Alma Irving would spend hours at the playground shooting baskets, or at the Apollo Theater watching movies. School was hardly a priority. Althea would go truant for days at a time. She’d ride the subway all night rather than head home and face the whipping she knew would follow. Her mother would walk the streets at two in the morning, calling Althea’s name. Her father couldn’t control her, even when he used his fists. At one point, she spent a night at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, on 105th Street, showing off welts on her back where her father had beaten her out of frustration. It wasn’t his fault, she allowed; she just couldn’t stay home. It wasn’t drugs, or sex, or anything more serious than stealing fruit from the Bronx Terminal Market that kept her away. She had a restlessness in her soul.
Before the war, Harlem wasn’t yet a slum. That happened later, when New York’s outer boroughs opened up for blacks, and then suburbs, such as Mount Vernon in Westchester County, did. White flight from urban areas is well-chronicled, but plenty of blacks flew, too, the moment the cage door opened. Why wouldn’t they leave the congestion of Harlem, the crumbling pavements, the rusted fire escapes where children would waste away steamy summer nights, if they could? Many of the wealthiest, the most successful, and the most creative abandoned Manhattan for, quite literally, greener pastures. Count Basie left for St. Albans, in Queens. Cab Calloway, too.
Harlem wasn’t a slum in the 1930s and early 1940s, but it was a ghetto. It was insular, a world of its own. Like the Jewish ghettos of central Europe, it housed people of all economic strata. An entire sepia-toned cross-section of American life lived on the latticework of city blocks, from river to river, from about 110th Street up to 155th. There were millionaires on Sugar Hill and bums in the gutter. There were preachers and housepainters, small businessmen and card sharks. There were blacks up from the Caribbean and blacks from the American South, two wholly different categories of people that often regarded each other warily.
There’s Joe Louis in a famous picture from 1935, striding down a Harlem sidewalk in a three-button camel’s-hair coat, looking majestic. Down there on the left, wearing a leather jacket and high boots outside his blousing pants, is the young Desmond Margetson, who had connived to work his way to the front row of the assembled crowd as Louis walked past and the photographer snapped, and now is grinning for posterity like a madman. Margetson would later play tennis at New York University and, in 1954, partner with Althea in a doubles tournament at the Seventh Regiment Armory. It isn’t merely coincidence that the same names emerge repeatedly at different points in this story. The world was smaller in those days, and exceptional people found a way to achieve—or at least to catch a glimpse of Joe Louis if that’s what they wanted. Margetson would surface again in 1957, when his engineer’s mind conjured up the idea for the tennis bubble, which covered an outdoor court and enabled enthusiasts of all races to play in inclement weather.
Harlem had its own nightclubs, of course; those were famous. Whites came uptown to see acts at the Apollo. But it also had good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods, restaurants, clothing stores, art galleries, even soda fountains like Spreen’s, where black kids would squander a nickel on an egg cream or chocolate soda, just as the white kids were doing on the Lower East Side and in Brooklyn Heights.
In those days, government organizations took an active role in urban life. Centralized solutions hadn’t yet been discredited. The Police Athletic League was empowered to close entire city blocks to traffic. Each summer, it commandeered blocks all over Harlem and called them Play Streets. There weren’t many playgrounds in Upper Manhattan and even fewer parks, so the pavement became stickball fields and hopscotch and paddle-ball courts. Fire hydrants were routinely opened to keep kids cool. The police, those benevolent peacekeepers, supplied all the equipment; all you had to do was show up. It was like summer camp, except that you could hear the mothers at their apartment windows, one after another calling their children in to dinner.
The PAL regularly closed off a portion of 143rd Street. Althea wandered by one day and began to play paddle tennis, which utilized a short wooden paddle and a rubber ball, like a Spaldeen. She was tall and lanky, with long arms. Soon, if we are to believe what we hear, she was winning match after match, holding the court until darkness fell, challenging all comers and never losing. She became the best player on the block, and when the PAL matched their 143rd Street kids against those from the other Play Streets, she won nearly all those matches, too.
That talent at hitting the paddle ball would eventually manifest itself in a life in tennis. But for now, Althea was an athlete; any sport would do. At some point, her father began to give her boxing lessons, teaching her to duck a punch as well as to throw one. He was preparing her not merely for defending herself, but for a professional career. (That was before the sport of women’s boxing was outlawed, though it has since been legalized again.) She played softball with the boys at Mount Morris Park on 121st Street. She played basketball in the schoolyards, and later, as womanhood approached, with an organized team called the Mysterious Five, which would compete against teams of female nurses and teachers and various other groups.
The girls of the Mysterious Five had known each other for years. Althea and Gloria Nightingale became friends in elementary school, and early on Nightingale introduced her to Bea Jenkins. Agnes Polite was a friend of a friend who joined them along the way. Adeline Matthews had been enrolled in the same junior high as Althea, P.S. 136; the difference was that Matthews bothered to attend class. Althea was almost never there. Her attitude was severe and simple. Nobody could make her do anything she didn’t want to do.
Several times, early in her teenage years, Althea had confided to Matthews that life at home was difficult. Her father was strict and beat her when she misbehaved. Her siblings ran underfoot. The apartment was cramped, and Althea wanted desperately to be on the street, where life was actually taking place. At a certain point, her parents all but gave up on her. They didn’t have the energy to keep fighting. She was fourteen years old when she graduated from junior high in 1941, not knowing how she managed such an accomplishment but pleased to have triumphed over the system. She headed off for a desultory attempt at vocational school, then soon stopped going altogether. She waited out the years until society would let her live on her own. She didn’t know what her future held, but she was certain it was something more interesting than listening to teachers drone on for hours at a time about how to hem a dress. She wasn’t averse to learning, just to sitting still.
Over time, the Mysterious Five came to be the most organized aspect of her life. She may have been irresponsible in most other matters, squandering the coins her mother gave her for family groceries on soft drinks and a hot dog for herself, but she never missed a basketball game. The coach of the team was Marsden Burrell, and he also acted as its sponsor. He bought uniforms with distinctive red-and-white shorts. He booked the dates, at times four or five games in a week, against teams from all over the city—most of them black, but some of them white. He’d get the word out somehow, telling one of the girls to tell another, and they’d gather. Win or lose, they’d repair to Spreen’s afterward for a malt and a ham sandwich, which served as dinner. Then Althea and Nightingale would usually go bowling, and the other girls would head home. They didn’t often visit each other’s apartments; the small walkups barely left room for families, let alone visitors.
As basketball players, these girls were sure of themselves. They thought they could beat any women’s team in the city, and probably most of the men, too. Friends would come to see them play—it didn’t cost anything. The Amsterdam News, which served Harlem and the remainder of New York’s black community, would occasionally write up the results. It never occurred to Althea or any of the others that all the professional athletes they read about were white, and most of the college athletes, too. They were living in a cocoon, as teenagers often do.
Nightingale was the leader. She was the loudest, the one you had to notice. She was forceful, full of braggadocio. A little shorter than the others, a little stockier, perhaps the prettiest, depending on your taste. She’d bring the ball up the court, shout out instructions, laugh the loudest when something struck her as funny. Looking back, she’s the one you’d have picked to make a name for herself, on the force of that personality. Or maybe you’d have picked Jenkins, a true tomboy who had the most athletic ability on the team and led it in scoring. Not Althea, anyway. So scrawny she looked almost emaciated at times, those big eyes bugging out of her head, she could shoot the ball, and she knew how to throw a fake and send a defensive player sprawling in the wrong direction as she drove past. But she was just a schoolyard basketball player transplanted to the indoor courts of the city, all dressed up in striped shorts on a winter’s night. There was no indication she’d ever be anything more.
After a while, Matthews noticed Althea trying to pattern herself after Nightingale. Nightingale was a star in Althea’s eyes, and Althea tried to act like a star, too. She’d talk a little louder than before, bark out instructions. It was almost comical; she couldn’t quite pull it off. At other times, she was quiet and shy, almost moody. She’d have to be talked into going to parties, and she sometimes went her own way when the crowd gathered at Spreen’s. She cultivated her independence, remembers Billie Davis, who was getting to know her in those days and would remain a friend and tennis partner for decades. There was always part of her that was antisocial, even in her own group.
At one point, after she’d turned eighteen, Althea moved into the Nightingale family’s apartment, paying nominal rent to a grandmother. By then, she’d worked a sequence of jobs, from elevator operator at the Dixie Hotel to waitress. She’d play basketball late into the night, then go bowling with Nightingale until four in the morning. There was no one to bother her if she came home late, or never came home at all. It was, she’d later recall, one of the happiest times of her life.
LONG BEFORE THEN, blacks were playing tennis across America. They were playing it at exclusive clubs and on city courts. They were playing on campuses, competing intercollegiately for a black national championship, and in informal tournaments in small towns. But like so many other aspects of American life at the time, black and white tennis existed in parallel universes. Whites and blacks rarely stepped on the same court together, and almost never with official sanction.
In 1916, Talley R. Holmes—Dartmouth, ’10—founded the American Tennis Association (ATA) as a governing body for black tennis. In an idealistic leap, he called it the American Tennis Association and not the Negro Tennis Association or the Colored Tennis Association. He had the notion that enlightened whites ultimately would play under its auspices for a genuine national championship. It would be easier to get whites to play in a black tournament, he figured, than to try to integrate the existing white power structure. It never happened. Though the ATA lingered on into the twenty-first century, it eventually faded into near oblivion, in large measure because Althea had rendered it redundant.
By 1917, the ATA was sponsoring national championships. The first event was held in Baltimore, and the men’s singles tournament was won by Holmes, who was stationed on domestic soil while serving as an intelligence officer in the army. After World War I, Holmes returned to Washington and taught German, French, Latin, and math to high schoolers. He owned Washington’s Whitelaw Hotel, the largest of its day to admit Negroes. He had the time, talent, and inclination to win ATA singles titles in 1918, 1921, and 1924, and eight doubles titles.
The ATA also held a women’s championship in Baltimore in 1917. The winner was Lucy Diggs Slowe, a Howard graduate who would become the first dean of women at Howard in 1922. These were formidable people, achievers. Winning the 1917 ATA women’s singles title made Slowe the first African-American woman to win a national title in any sport.
None of this had any impact on Althea Gibson, who was playing paddle ball on the asphalt of 143rd Street on hot summer days. She had never heard of Tally Holmes or Lucy Slowe, or any black tennis players at all. It is also difficult to imagine that she knew anything of substance about Bill Tilden, Fred Perry, Suzanne Lenglen, and Helen Wills, the dominant white players of the 1920s and 1930s. It wasn’t like today, when you can watch a player on SportsCenter and then imitate him on a playground or a ball field. For Althea, tennis was something to compete at of an afternoon, after stickball and before basketball. Which game she was playing almost didn’t matter. Teach her the rules—cards, pool, tackle football, or anything else—and she’d try her best to beat you. Most often, she did.
Her climb from that teenager playing stickball and paddle ball on the street to a Wimbledon champion was accomplished with the aid of a succession of patrons. It began in Harlem, with black men who took an interest in her as a potential talent and helped her climb the ladder. Getting by as a black in a white man’s world wasn’t easy under the best of circumstances, so those who had accomplished something often did what they could to lend a hand. They offered their time, their knowledge, and even their resources, meager as those might have been. Part of the motive was altruism, and part of it was projection. They lived in a time of limits and limitations; they wanted the next generation of African-Americans to have greater opportunities. Buddy Walker, a part-time bandleader and salaried recreational supervisor, was never going to be a world champion at anything, he well knew. But this young Althea Gibson he saw strutting along the sidewalks, whipping every girl and boy in the area in paddle tennis—well, she just might be.
Walker worked for the Police Athletic League by day and played music at night. Later he’d be almost famous, his band appearing at many prominent Harlem weddings, but at the time he still had to supplement his income supervising Play Streets. He saw Althea playing paddle tennis and admired her coordination and competitiveness. He couldn’t help wondering how she’d fare at the real thing. So he purchased two used rackets from a secondhand shop, five dollars for the pair, and started hitting with her against the wall of the handball court at Morris Park. He liked the way she smacked the ball with everything she had, though her form was terrible. And why wouldn’t it be? She had never seen a real tennis match before, just weekend players hacking around at the Harlem River Courts on 150th Street.
Walker talked her into walking the seven blocks to the courts to play a real match. It was no easy feat. Nobody was going to tell her what to do, especially not a figure of authority. She made her way there on her own time, but she eventually arrived. Buddy set her up on one side of the net and stationed himself on the other. Soon she was keeping the ball in play for long rallies, and even winning some points.
It was an impressive exhibition for someone who had never played the game before. One of the men watching her there, Juan Serrall (or perhaps Serrell), took an immediate interest. Serrall was a school-teacher and a friend of Walker’s. Walker could get Althea off 143rd Street, but Serrall could get her out of the neighborhood. He knew members at the Cosmopolitan Club, at Convent and 149th on Sugar Hill, where the one-armed tennis pro Fred Johnson made his living giving lessons. Serrall delivered her to Johnson and disappeared from the story, having played out a small but critical role.
Years later, in the ABC television series The Fugitive, a different one-armed Fred Johnson would bear the guilt for the murder of Helen Kimble, the wife of a Stafford, Indiana, pediatrician. The name of our one-armed Fred Johnson adorns the tennis courts at 150th Street, the Cosmopolitan Club being long gone. As a young teenager, Johnson lost an arm in a factory accident, yet he gravitated toward teaching tennis. His playing technique was impressive to watch. He’d hold the racket in his only hand—and the ball there with it. He’d manage to toss the ball skyward, then swat at it on its way back down. He didn’t have a second hand to balance the racket while he rotated it a quarter-turn to hit a backhand, so he used a Continental grip, which stayed the same no matter which face of the racket you were using. That’s what he knew, and that’s what he taught, so that’s what Althea learned.
The Cosmopolitan Club consisted of five clay courts and a clubhouse. Every so often, a famous white player would pass through and play an exhibition there. But for the most part, the Cosmopolitan was New York’s center of black tennis, the only place in town for serious black players to play. It was run, in large measure, by Caribbean-Americans, from islands like Barbados and Trinidad and St. Kitts, and had a certain colonial air. Perhaps that explains the popularity of cricket and tennis among the members. Harlem’s social elite filled its halls and its courts, but courts could also be rented by the hour by nonmembers if they weren’t in use. The club had a junior program, and occasionally money was raised to send promising junior members to ATA events across the country.
Des Margetson was there the day Althea arrived and remembers seeing a marvelous athlete who had no idea how to hit the ball. Her shots were far from sound, but her timing was so good that it hardly mattered. Her ability to run like a sprinter and belt the ball over the net with such force, to leap high and cut off lobs or turn tail and run them down deep in the backcourt, impressed everyone who saw it. Almost instantly, the club decided to sponsor her. They paid for her membership, bought her rackets. From being underprivileged, she became privileged, at least in comparison with the other young players who were on the outside looking in. In return, Althea helped out retrieving balls, laundering towels, that kind of thing. She was happy to do it. She had barely heard of Forest Hills, let alone Wimbledon. In her world, the Cosmopolitan Club was the big time.
In 1944, two years later, Alice Marble played an exhibition match at the Cosmopolitan Club. She and Bob Ryland, a future ATA champion, were matched against Reginald Weir and England’s Mary Hardwick, a formidable player who had advanced to the Wimbledon quarterfinals before the war. These were genuinely mixed doubles, with a white and a black on each side of the court. Years later, Marble would write the letter that gained Althea entrance into the U.S. Championships, but in those days she was simply the finest female player in the world. She was blond and trim, the picture of femininity, but she played the game like a man. She socialized like a man, too, drinking and smoking with impunity. Over a cocktail at the Cosmopolitan Club bar, a small victory for race relations in itself, she asked Ryland about this young Gibson girl she’d heard about from various members of the club. That discussion evolved into the beginnings of a plan to get Althea or another black player into Forest Hills. It wouldn’t come to pass for six years.
For her part, Althea had never seen a woman play tennis so well. “I can still remember saying to myself, Boy would I like to be able to play tennis like that!” she wrote in her autobiography. It was the same reaction that fifteen-year-old Angela Buxton would have seven years later, watching Althea play at Queen’s Club.
IT CERTAINLY WASN’T athletic ability keeping African-Americans from playing championship tennis in the mid-1940s, nor even a lack of exposure to the game. Public courts were numerous, perhaps more numerous than today. But adequate coaches were scarce. “There were no truly great teachers, or places to go to get a first-class tennis education, with due respect to Fred Johnson,” Margetson remembers.
It was fine that Johnson used the Continental grip; England’s Fred Perry had won Wimbledon with it in the ’30s. But Johnson hadn’t mastered the techniques necessary to generate any power in the forehand. There was no torque on his balls, no muscle, no spin. The truth was, Johnson himself had never taken a lesson. He’d go to tournaments, watch some of the better players, take mental notes, but he wasn’t really seeing what he had to see. Althea became good enough, but later she’d have to unlearn almost everything technical that Fred Johnson taught her.
Even so, she progressed quickly. Johnson taught her rudimentary strokes, but he also taught her to learn from her mistakes. Each time she lost a match, she tried to figure out why, instead of threatening to slug the winner in the mouth, which is what she was tempted to do. Pure athleticism went a long way in tennis then, as it does today, and Althea was able to chase down shots and get them back with power. Her speed and range made her one of the better players at the club before long. In the summer of 1942, when she was almost fifteen and had been playing tennis for about a year, she entered the New York State Open Championship in the junior division.
The event was sponsored by the ATA and held at the Cosmopolitan Club. It was largely black, though not entirely so: a white girl named Nina Irwin was also entered as a junior. Irwin’s mother, a Russian immigrant, had learned tennis from Johnson at the 143rd Street Armory years before, and now Nina was traveling each week to the Cosmopolitan Club from Inwood, near Fort Tryon Park at the top of Manhattan, for lessons. She was welcomed there, and not merely because the Irwins paid their bill on time. Members were proud to think that their club was truly cosmopolitan.
Irwin was a friendly girl with a sunny smile, but she longed to beat Althea, the emerging standout in their age group. As it happened, they each advanced to the tournament final. Althea won it easily, her first significant victory. It tasted all the sweeter because she perceived that many of the Cosmopolitan Club members watching from the grandstand had been rooting for Irwin, though Althea was black and Irwin was white. In fact, Althea would spend her entire career believing that the spectators on hand were mostly against her—and, in many cases, they were. Sometimes it happened because of her skin color, but often it was caused by the confidence bordering on arrogance that infused both her play and her body language. It made a neutral observer want to see her defeated.
Even as a teenager, Althea wanted to win her matches more than anyone she knew. It showed in how she behaved on the court, especially after losing a match. More than once, Johnson cautioned her to subdue her histrionics and act like a lady. In that amateur era, tennis wasn’t taken as seriously as it would be later, with millions of dollars on the line. It was a pastime, not a livelihood. The finest players were future doctors, lawyers, and other professionals, and they played as an avocation, between their work and their studies. This held true for blacks even more than for whites, who could at least grow up fantasizing about Wimbledon. Blacks knew they weren’t going far, so they cast their ambitions in other directions. Weir, who played for City College of New York, won five ATA titles between 1931 and 1942 while studying to be a dentist. Margetson, the future engineer, went on to captain the NYU tennis team. He wouldn’t have traded his college education for the chance to be the finest tennis player in the world. “Tennis, unlike the true professions, is not a college-degree subject,” he said. It was an engaging game, but a game nonetheless.
It did help integrate society. Every mixed-race match struck a small blow for equality and open-mindedness. Margetson played against whites as a high schooler at DeWitt Clinton, and he did it again at NYU. Sonny Jackson played in the Eastern Scholastics against whites, winning some matches. One can easily imagine the sons of New York’s privileged getting their first real exposure to Negroes at such tournaments and realizing they had more in common with these burgeoning preprofessionals than they ever realized.
Still, most of the United States Lawn Tennis Association’s tournaments, including the U.S. Championships at Forest Hills—also called the U.S. Nationals, and the precursor to today’s U.S. Open—were held at private clubs that excluded blacks by fiat. The effect this had on black tennis was deadening. Ora Mae Washington, born in 1898, won eight ATA titles and went undefeated in ATA events from 1924 to 1936, when not playing on a barnstorming black basketball team called the Philadelphia Tribunes to earn a living. She was a phenomenon, possibly one of the most talented tennis players in the world for as long as a decade, and undoubtedly among the most successful in terms of tournaments won. Yet she was unable to test her talents against the finest players of the day under championship conditions. She was black, and they were white.
ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD, the democratic precept of the fundamental equality of all men and women was faring even worse. In the newly independent Union of South Africa, the official languages remained English and the Dutch variant of Afrikaans, though the vast majority of citizens spoke neither one. Blacks, Cape Coloureds, and Indians, grouped together as nonwhites, were stricken from that country’s voting rolls and denied basic liberties, such as the right to travel freely between towns or attend schools, or even to emigrate to a better life. A tiny percentage of land was set aside for them, though they far outnumbered the former colonials.
At the same time, immigration was limited to those who would easily assimilate into the white minority population. That description didn’t include Jews of any color. They were legally barred from entering South Africa with an intent to stay, as the Buxton family was strictly warned when it arrived by steamer from Liverpool in 1940 with Europe already at war.
DURING THE MIDDLE MONTHS OF 1940, as U-boats plied the trade routes of the Atlantic and the possibility of a German invasion drove some English families to the countryside and even into exile, South Africa existed as an idyll, a world of its own. Under the warmth of the afternoon sun, a small girl with skin colored like coffee with cream took to playing in an alleyway off St. John’s Road in Cape Town, behind a house of stone and stucco. The house was situated at the end of a steep street that led up the back slope of Table Mountain, a panoramic spot. You could see the Indian Ocean from the yard, and that majestic, cloud-shrouded landmark loomed out the back door.
The girl’s mother worked as a domestic at one of the bigger houses on Ocean View Drive, and her family may have even lived there, in the servants’ quarters of some grand white man’s residence. One day the girl had materialized, as if by magic, in back of the house that Violet Buxton had contracted to rent on a monthly basis for herself and her children. After that she was waiting each afternoon when young Angela, who was almost exactly the same age, returned from the day school she was attending. The girl had long black hair that she wore very straight. She had bloodlines going back to the Indian subcontinent. Angela wore pigtails and ribbons in her light-brown hair. The girls would skip and play hopscotch together outside the Buxtons’ kitchen door until sunset, as six-year-olds are wont to do.
This happened only a few times before a neighbor stopped by with advice. White children in South Africa didn’t socialize with Cape Coloureds, she told Violet. Perhaps in England it might be done, but not in this part of the world. “Do not encourage this friendship,” the woman said. “Stop the two girls from playing together now.”
Violet Buxton was only five-foot-two, but very feisty. She had a stubborn streak that bordered on the contrary. Tell her not to do something, and she was all but certain to do it. But living as a single mother, with a husband two continents away, she wasn’t prepared for a battle. Her life was difficult enough in South Africa without making enemies. She had sailed south from England with her son and daughter, temporary exiles seeking a safe haven to wait out the war. They spent the journey terrified that the U-boats would sink their ship, then arrived in the midst of the chilly Cape winter and promptly fell ill with a strain of pneumonia. As Jews, they were welcome in South Africa only on a temporary basis. They were unwanted guests required to leave the moment the hostilities ceased back home—or before that, if the government decided to evict them. Their standing was nothing if not precarious.
Accordingly, Violet had no appetite for trouble. She warned Angela not to see the girl again. She’s not like we are, Violet said, and that offends certain people here. We’re guests and we have to abide by their rules. Ever the obedient daughter, Angela nodded, but she was crestfallen. It had never occurred to her that skin color might have anything to do with friendship.
HARRY BUXTON had sent his family to South Africa to escape the buzz bombs that would soon be plummeting from the sky, and perhaps to mend a ruptured marriage. Though he loved Violet and adored his children, Angela and Gordon, he wasn’t meant to be a husband. He couldn’t stay still. Home meant a suitcase in a hotel room, usually in the best hotel in town. Later, once his money had multiplied, he’d maintain a suite at the Grosvenor Park in London, another at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo, and one behind the gilded facade of the Midland Hotel in Manchester, right off St. Albans Square.
The marriage to Violet had been on the verge of disintegrating. Now husband and wife were thousands of miles apart and getting along far better by writing letters than they had face to face. Harry remained in England, a burgeoning entertainment mogul: dashing here and darting there, adding movie theaters to his growing empire, and regularly mailing out money orders to Violet, who was now on the move herself. She and the children left Cape Town for rural life in the Little Karoo, then journeyed on to Johannesburg, searching for a climate that wouldn’t exacerbate Gordon’s asthma. By then, seven-year-old Angela had come to understand that some people were considered different. Her school in Johannesburg was attached to a convent, and she was one of the few Jews enrolled; they’d stand outside in the hallway during prayers, talking quietly.
The Buxtons lived in a bed-and-breakfast, sharing a bathroom at the end of a hall with other guests. Violet took her time doing her hair in front of the mirror; preening a bit, if truth be told. It was hardly egregious, and she needed some diversion. She usually left the door open to assuage the stifling heat, and once the wrong man walked past. He looked at her disapprovingly, as if he’d come across a wild animal in heat. “You bloody Jews, you’re all alike,” he said. This time, she didn’t hesitate. She slapped him hard with the comb, then told the children to start packing. They were gone that night.
Young and attractive, Violet wasn’t about to wait out the war alone. She might have had a tacit agreement with Harry that she could see other men—or not. It hardly mattered; they were miles apart and on uncertain terms. She began dating a man named Bennie Tessel. He was unattractive but extraordinarily generous to an exiled family that felt disconnected from the dauntingly different city in which they’d arrived. And he was Jewish, which made them feel comfortable. They celebrated the same holidays, ate the same food. It was a vestige of home.
Tessel kept a country estate outside Johannesburg where he’d often bring the three of them on a weekend afternoon. He had blacks working there, and he treated them as though they were animals. He’d literally play with them in the same way you might train your puppy. Go on, into the corner, he’d say, expecting them to get down on hands and knees and crawl there. And they would do it. It was the oddest thing, the Buxtons thought. He’d loom over them and pretend to kick them as though they were disobedient dogs. Stay in the corner, he’d say, looking stern. That’s where you belong. And then Bennie Tessel would let out a roaring laugh, and whichever laborer happened to be folded against the wall at the moment would laugh, too. It was just Bennie, playing his games. He didn’t mean any harm. He gave them work, which was hard to come by with the trade routes blocked and the economy failing, and he fed them well. But Angela, watching this play out from across the room, was sickened. She couldn’t reconcile it with the gentle way he treated her.
Violet sat her down and spoke to her like an adult. “We don’t condone it,” she said, “but we won’t rock the boat.” Violet figured the war would be ending soon. She refused to follow the example the white South Africans were setting, but she didn’t want to make trouble. They were Jewish, and life was hard enough. Keep your head down, don’t get noticed, don’t get involved. For Jews during wartime, especially, those were words to live by.
ON JULY 19, 1891, Charles deVille Wells spent eleven hours at the roulette table at a Monte Carlo casino and parlayed a 100,000-franc holding into more than twice its value. He nurtured his winnings and eventually had another run of luck, which netted him a million francs. At that point, the casino ran out of chips and temporarily closed. Later that year, composer Fred Gilbert wrote a song about Wells that was sung all around England, in the music halls that were fashionable at the time:
As I walk along the Bois Bolog’ with an independent air
You can hear the girls declare
He must be a millionaire
You can hear them sigh and wish to die
You can see them wink the other eye
At the man who broke the bank in Monte Carlo
The renowned performer Charles Coborn, whose real name was Colin McCallum, debuted the song at the Trocadero in London. It became wildly popular around the British Isles, and later in the United States. It was a song for the parlor-room piano; assembled friends and family were urged to sing along. Everyone knew the lyrics, but the story that inspired it had faded into obscurity.
Decades after Wells, Harry Buxton broke the bank at a casino in Nice, just up the coast from Monte Carlo. The date is uncertain, but it must have been around 1928, two years before he would propose to Violet Greenberg. He won so much playing roulette that the casino laid black velvet over the tables and closed its doors until additional chips could be procured. The song followed Buxton for the rest of his life. People around Manchester, where he eventually cut quite a profile, came to believe it must have been written about him, though it had been popular more than a generation before. It fit his precariously glamorous lifestyle so well: “I to Monte Carlo went/Just to raise the winter rent/And I’ve now such lots of money I’m a gent.” They could envision Harry Buxton thinking just that way.
He was no longer a salesman on the make from a low-class family of Orthodox Jews in Leeds, standing on a crate in the marketplace, hawking whatever he could to get by. He was smart and ambitious, and the run of luck in Nice had brought him a small fortune. He made the most of it. He briefly traded in the stock market, segued into jewelry, then found his niche in the entertainment industry. He bought movie theaters in Manchester and beyond, all over the north of England. He bought the Gaiety in downtown Manchester, and the famed Royale, erected in 1845, which stood directly across the street. He’d stride over from his suite at the Midland, stand off to the side, watch the crowds file in one theater and then the other, count profits in his head.
When Gone With the Wind came to England in 1940, Harry felt he was in a position to capitalize. This maudlin love story set in the distant American South provided an ideal respite from a world at war. But the three-hour film, which had cost a fortune to make, arrived loaded with egregious taxes. The taxes were so high that the agency representing the cinema exhibitors flatly refused to book it. They were making a stand. Harry shrugged and ordered the film for the Gaiety: an extraordinary decision, and not merely because he was arousing the ire of the exhibitors’ association. For a movie of such renown (ten Oscars, including Best Picture) to open in the provinces before it had been seen by Londoners would be peculiar even today. At the time, it was scandalous. The representative of the association called Harry and threatened to dispatch picketers to Manchester. They would parade around the theater in sandwich boards labeling him unpatriotic. “How many picketers are you planning to send?” Harry asked. Told that it might be as many as half a dozen, he asked them to make it twelve. He understood that the publicity from such a scene would attract intense interest, and so it did. The picketers came, and then the crowds. Harry played the film for an entire year, until most of Manchester had seen it twice.
At times, Harry was the embodiment of the cartoonish Jew. He was the loudest man in the room everywhere he went. He was ostentatious and made money easily. He had none of the reserve that characterized most Englishmen. If he saw a friend on the other side of the street, he’d cross it to greet him. “How’re your bowels?” he’d bellow, loud as a foghorn. After the war, he would buy a white, chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce that had belonged to Queen Wilhelmina of Holland and still had her crest on the door. The car would ease up to the exclusive Church Road entrance at Wimbledon when Angela was playing. Harry would wave confidently from the back seat and be let on through, though he was the furthest thing from anyone they’d allow to be a member. Such harmless hoaxes were part of his nature, but he also played loose with the truth when reporting his annual income to the Inland Revenue. When Angela began to make a little money, she would be viewed with intense suspicion by the tax authorities because she was Harry Buxton’s daughter. She must be hiding something, they’d figure. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Harry wasn’t suited for Violet from the start. That was clear to anyone who knew them. He was an irresistible force and Violet an immovable object, and they clashed on almost every issue. Neither would take a subordinate role in the relationship. But she was almost an old maid when he proposed to her, all of twenty-four, and her father urged her to accept. Here was this man of means who wanted to marry her, and she was being choosy. How many more chances did she think she would get?
Violet had her flings in Africa, Bennie Tessel and some others. But when she and the children returned to England in May of 1946, they moved with Harry to a rented house in Sussex. They’d left a man with pretensions, but in the intervening years he’d become a VIP. Days prior to their arrival, he bought the pier at Bogner Regis, on the other side of the English coast, near Brighton, which is like someone purchasing the Atlantic City boardwalk. Actually, he bought the right to build a new pier, for the old one was gone. It had been destroyed by English troops to help thwart a potential German invasion. England did that with all its piers, all along the coast. The idea was to make a landing more difficult for the enemy troop ships and U-boats if they stormed the shore. With the war over, the government sold the rights to rebuild the piers to private individuals for a pittance. It was the quickest and most efficient way to get them rebuilt. In April of 1946, Harry purchased the rights for Bogner Regis, then built a new pier with a white clapboard music hall and started booking some of the top acts in England.
The reconciliation with Violet only lasted a few weeks. She couldn’t stand him being away so much, and liked it even less when he was home. She threatened to expose his secrets to the tax collectors unless he agreed to a divorce. In the end, nobody seemed terribly upset about it except sixteen-year-old Gordon, who was just old enough to see his world coming apart. That July, just two months after arriving back in the United Kingdom, Violet and the children moved to bucolic North Wales, where her parents had fled from Liverpool during the war. Harry stayed behind to mind his empire.
IN JOHANNESBURG, Angela had picked up tennis. She was tall, well on the way to the five-foot-nine she would reach as an adult, and aggressive compared to the proper South African girls. By the time she was eleven, in 1945, she was getting instruction from the national coach, George Demasius, who also served as the South African correspondent for American Lawn Tennis magazine. International competition had ceased during wartime and he had little to do. He’d come to their little convent school and give lessons to any girls who wanted them. As a result, when she returned to England the following year, Angela was a far better player than her peers, most of whom had barely played the game.
England had all but abandoned tennis during the war, which had lasted for more than half the sentient lives of these twelve-year-olds. Indoor courts were bombed or requisitioned, while outdoor courts had fallen into disrepair. The Championships at Wimbledon’s All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club hadn’t been played since 1939. Rackets and balls and nets were deemed superfluous to the war effort, so their manufacture was halted. By 1946, few remained in any useable form.
Violet’s parents in North Wales had a four-bedroom semi-detached house. There was a public tennis court directly opposite, but nobody ever used it. Instead, Angela would play tennis alone against the rough, pebbled wall of the house, using the rose hedge to approximate a net, hitting a ball for hours. Sometimes she’d hit the rose bushes, and her grandfather would come out and scold her. He believed that a young woman should be reading books, not soiling her clothes with sweat. That fall Violet sent Angela to Gloddeath Hall, a boarding school near the English border, an hour from Liverpool. Each week, she’d get thirty minutes of tennis lessons, shared with another girl. Tennis balls were hard to come by, and many coaches had turned to other work, or hadn’t come back from the war intact or even alive. Half an hour a week was all that could be managed.
She was a weekly boarder, and she’d go home each Sunday to spend a day with her mother and brother, then return that evening for tennis. A coach named Bob Mulligan would travel in from Liverpool and hit balls at the two of them, one after another. There was little talk and almost no instruction. Half an hour and it would be over, and then she’d wait until the following weekend to do it again. But Angela showed promise. Eventually, Mulligan informed Violet that her daughter had talent for the game, and she needed to do something about it. This flummoxed her.
“Like what?” she said.
“Put her in tournaments.”
“Like Wimbledon?” She wasn’t being flip; it was the only tennis tournament she knew.
“No, not Wimbledon. In junior tournaments. Not here, but ’round where I live.”
Near Liverpool, on England’s west coast, a series of tournaments were held every summer. They were just starting up again after the war. As it happened, Violet had a sister in Southport, which was the end of the line for the Liverpool train and not far from Mulligan’s home. Mulligan offered to meet up with her on the train each day and travel with her to the various events.
The following summer, 1947, Angela went to Southport for three weeks, one to train and two to play. Having not hit a ball in a month, she showed up rusty. Everyone was eager to see this potential champion Mulligan had been talking up. She tossed a serve, missed it entirely, felt an utter fool. But she rallied. She played 18-and-under events against ranked players, but she’d get a handicap. In one match, she started off each game up 40–0, which is like beginning each inning of a baseball game with a man already on third. Soon she was beating some of her opponents without the handicap. With it, she was unstoppable. She won both tournaments she entered.
Violet came to visit for the week in the middle, and they stayed at a fancy hotel. By then, Angela was entertaining the idea that she was rather good at tennis. She was eager to show off for her mother, who had never seen her play. She acted condescending on the court, hardly deigning to pick up the balls; she figured it was the way champions carried themselves. Violet was mortified. “If you ever behave like that again on the court, I’m walking right out and getting you,” she said.
Like Althea, Angela had no role models and no sense of the history of the sport. Because of the war, England hadn’t fielded a national tennis team for seven years. A generation of players—in sports terms—had come and gone. For the same reason, the country’s coaches and tennis administrators had little idea which young players might have potential. To find out, Dan Maskell, the national coach, was dispatched around the country with former Wimbledon champion Fred Perry, an English icon. They traveled by train throughout England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, looking for future standouts. Perhaps because of her summer success, Angela found herself invited to one of these siftings, as they were being called. It was in Colwyn Bay, Wales, a tourist town. Like the rest of the hopefuls, Angela hit briefly with Maskell as Perry manned the microphone and observed. Afterward, she heard nothing for months. Then word came that she was among several dozen who had been invited to show their skills in a grand sifting at Wimbledon.
She traveled by bus to London, her ambition making her heart pound the entire way. She had never seen Wimbledon, much less played there. (The sifting was held on courts adjacent to the All England Club, but Angela figured that it counted as Wimbledon, nonetheless.) She toured the grounds, spent time hitting, but it was quickly evident that she didn’t have the natural talent that some did. These were the best of the best, after all. She was given a hearty handshake and a sincere thanks, then sent back to “her little corner of the world,” as she thought of it, where she tried to put tennis out of her mind. She commenced studying for her school certificate, which she duly passed.
It gave her no joy. She remained resolutely uninterested in school-work. She couldn’t help it, she said to herself. Talented or not, she wanted to play tennis.
HARRY BUXTON was constantly on the move, one city to the next. Occasionally, he’d stop by for a family visit, and they’d all take a drive. One day, he and Violet rumbled off to discuss Angela’s future. Harry proposed sending her to Switzerland for finishing school, which would give her the polish and poise that few Jews of her generation had been able to obtain. Violet didn’t think that was a bad idea—funny how they got along so well now that they were apart—but remarked that Angela wanted only to hit tennis balls, hour after hour. To her surprise, Harry didn’t object. “I’m told you meet some nice people in tennis,” he said. He was thinking of Hollywood and leisurely matches he’d read about, as played by the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Katharine Hepburn. As usual, he had stars in his eyes.
Harry didn’t know a thing about the game. He couldn’t even keep score and never bothered to learn. Sitting at Wimbledon in 1956, watching his daughter play in the singles and doubles finals, he’d lean over to her boyfriend at the time and ask how the match was progressing. He could see the scoreboard as clearly as anyone else, but he couldn’t decipher whether she was winning or losing.
He did know that if a daughter of Harry Buxton wanted to play tennis, she would have the opportunity to do it right. It was decided that Gordon would come and live with Harry, while Violet and Angela would move to London, which afforded far more opportunity for tennis instruction than anyplace else in England. Angela would attend a year of school there, to learn to cook if nothing else, and play all the tennis she could. Harry would pay for everything. The idea thrilled Violet, who saw it as a new start, and when Angela heard, she was beyond joy. Lying in bed that night, she decided that she had the most wonderful parents, even if they happened to be divorced. Her mother looked after her like a baby, and her father paid for it all.
Violet and Angela alighted at 97 Rossmore Court, NW1, near the Baker Street tube stop, little realizing that Angela would live there for the most memorable decade of her life. She was fifteen that summer of 1950, about to turn sixteen in August. She wanted to be finished with school, but Violet wouldn’t allow it; that was part of the deal. Violet found her a small, private academy in Hampstead run by the mother of a national skating champion.
Gladys Lyne Jepson-Turner, known as Belita, had a long run as the featured attraction in the Ice Capades, then turned to movies. She would appear in Invitation to the Dance in 1956, and Silk Stockings in 1957. Her career gave her mother’s school a certain cachet. Mrs. Jepson-Turner’s school, called Queens House, looked like the setting of a Dickens novel. It was dark and foreboding, with a chimney that often blocked the sun. There was a decrepit tennis court in the back that was too far gone to use, but Mrs. Jepson-Turner promised to make arrangements nearby. It was part of the curriculum of the school that athletes and artists were able to practice on school time. Skaters could skate, painters could paint, dancers could dance, and Angela could play her tennis.
Mrs. Jepson-Turner wore a feather boa and reeked of perfume. She carried herself with an artistic air, as if she couldn’t be bothered with details. But, true to her word, she worked out a deal with a teaching pro at the Cumberland Club, several blocks away. Three times a week, she drove Angela to the club, a stream of ostrich feathers flying out of the car each time she rolled down the window to signal for the left turn at the top of the hill. She waited in the car until the hour was up and the instruction over, then drove Angela back to school.
From the outside, the Cumberland Club looked like a tenement house. Though it backed against the Hampstead Cricket Club and its fields of billiard green, it had peeling paint and a tiny, faded sign. Inside, however, the Cumberland Club was quite posh. At the time, it was the best tennis club in North London, and it arguably remains that today, though it has barely received a new coat of paint in the intervening years. Bill Blake, the coach at the Cumberland Club, was a charmer in white flannel pants. He welcomed this young player who seemed to have some promise, and, after a few lessons, gave her an application to join the club. She filled it out: name, address, parents’ names, religion, all the details. Weeks passed, and nobody mentioned her status. Others would have let it pass, but it was Angela’s nature to probe and push.
Each time she stepped inside the club for a lesson, several days each week, she inquired about her application. Am I going to join? Have they had a committee meeting? Am I suitable? Finally, Bill Blake couldn’t stand it any longer. “Look, you’ll never make it,” he told her.
“Why not? Aren’t I good enough?”
“You’re perfectly good, but you’re Jewish,” he hissed. “We don’t take Jews here.”
Back in the car, Mrs. Jepson-Turner was more exercised than Angela. She couldn’t believe that such prejudice existed in postwar London, especially after everything the Jews had suffered. She wanted to write a letter, make a fuss. Angela told her not to bother. “I’ve other clubs in mind,” she said airily.
Several times in the years that followed, Angela would win the London championships, played at the Cumberland Club. She never failed to remind them that she was Jewish. And years later, her son Joseph Silk umpired a tournament there that happened to be held during Passover. They handed him the requisite meal tickets for lunch and tea, but he turned them down. “I’m Jewish,” he said, well aware of how such words would resonate inside those walls. “I have my own matzoh.”
THAT FOLLOWING JUNE OF 1951, just as the spring term was ending at Queens House, Angela read in the newspapers that Althea Gibson was coming to Queen’s Club. She pulled on her backpack and a boater hat and made the trip to see her. In the nine years following Althea’s first tournament, when she’d beaten Nina Irwin in that interracial match at the Cosmopolitan Club in 1942, she had gained a measure of fame. But she was still considered more of a novelty act than a champion. She hadn’t won anything, still hadn’t even played at Wimbledon. She was famous because of what she represented, not for anything she had managed to accomplish.
Althea’s journey from the Cosmopolitan Club to Queen’s Club had begun with the Irwin match in the summer of 1942. Buoyed by her success, the wealthier members of the Cosmopolitan Club had pooled their resources and sent her by bus to the ATA’s national championships that August. They were held that year an hour’s drive outside Philadelphia, at Lincoln University. It was an act of faith, for nobody knew how good she might actually be. She had only been taking lessons with one-armed Fred Johnson for a year.
At Lincoln, Althea advanced to the girls’ final before losing to a promising player named Nana Davis. No championships were held the following summer, because of war travel restrictions, but by the time they resumed in 1944, Althea had emerged as the best female among all ATA juniors. She still had received no formal instruction beyond Johnson’s flawed pointers; still positioned her feet incorrectly when striking the ball; still had scant sense of court strategy, still chased down balls with a frenzied gait. But she retrieved so well, served so hard, and advanced to net in such intimidating fashion, none of it mattered. She was a formidable athlete, and she played each match with the insouciance of someone slapping a paddleball on 143rd Street. She won the ATA junior championship in 1944, and again in 1945.
During the year that followed, she would meet three more men of means who would guide her toward opportunities. All her life, Althea was able to entice others into taking an interest in her. She exuded something compelling. Without expectations, she carried herself as if she had little to lose, was afraid of no one, ashamed of nothing, though she never tried to hide her naïveté. There was a ferocious honesty to everything she did, a lack of artifice that contrasted sharply with the well-mannered reserve cultivated by many Southern-bred, churchgoing black women of her generation, even those whose families had migrated north. Some of those whose lives intersected Althea’s ended up offended, for such honesty was polarizing. To others, it came off as immensely appealing.
IN THOSE DAYS, Althea carried herself with great bravado. When she met boxer Ray Robinson for the first time during the winter of 1945–46, she couldn’t help informing him that she was the defending ATA champion among female 18-and-unders, while he was a mere contender for the welterweight title. Robinson had fought professionally since 1940, and had been anointed the Fighter of the Year in 1942 by the prestigious Ring magazine, but he wouldn’t win his first championship until the following December, when he whipped Tommy Bell.
Still, everyone in Harlem knew Robinson and his wife, Edna. Born Walker Smith Jr. in Ailey, Georgia, in 1921, he’d been moved to Detroit while still an infant, then on to midtown Manhattan with his mother and sister after his parents divorced. Eventually, the fragmented family gravitated to Harlem, where Smith started boxing under the tutelage of the Salem-Crescent Athletic Club’s George Gainford, and the Ray Robinson name.
At the time, boxing was one of the few sports in which blacks could compete on an equal basis with whites. It had been that way since Jack Johnson defeated Jim Jeffries to win the heavyweight title in Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910, the first “fight of the century” in a century that ultimately would offer up maybe a dozen. Unlike the best black baseball, basketball, and tennis players, black boxers such as Joe Louis were not merely the Negro champions, they were world champions.
Althea’s achievements meant little in comparison, and not only because she was still competing as a junior. Tennis just wasn’t on the radar screen in Harlem. She was getting more attention locally for paddleball, basketball, even tackle football. Tennis required rackets and new balls, and a permit to use city courts, which could cost as much as two dollars a season, a formidable sum. The sport was an abstract concept for someone living in Harlem in 1945, not a recreational reality. Aside from Cosmopolitan Club members and habitués of the few public courts scattered around the city, most blacks didn’t consider mastering it among the realm of the possible. “You had to wear uniforms in tennis,” recalls Deacon Lawrence Howard of the Abyssianian Baptist Church, “and even those uniforms were white.”
But a top welterweight contender living in your neighborhood—now, that was reason to be proud. Before long, Robinson had a bar-and-grill on Seventh Avenue, between 124th and 125th Streets. You could walk in and see him there, behind the bar or greeting customers. Stay long enough and you might spot Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, the famous dancer, wandering in, or Nat King Cole, who was married right there off Seventh Avenue at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell presiding. The confluence of famous names was a product of the times. There was a limited number of places for a wealthy black man to go.
Althea was bowling with Gloria Nightingale when she encountered Robinson late one night. She didn’t ask for an autograph as others might have done, or to pose for a snapshot. Instead, she challenged him to bowl against her. The outcome of the game or games is unrecorded, but by the end of the night, the two athletes were fast friends. Beginning almost immediately, Althea would spend as much time as she could with the Robinsons, often sitting on the floor of their Harlem apartment and talking late into the night. “She was unhappy,” Edna Mae Robinson told Time in 1957. “She had a gaunt build, and she felt she was the least good-looking girl she knew. She had insecurity and went into herself. She used to talk wild. I tried to make her feel she could be something.”
Althea would also benefit from the Robinsons’ financial largesse. Ray Robinson encouraged her growing interest in jazz by buying her a saxophone, fed her at his restaurant, frequently put her up at his home. In 1950, he would send her to Detroit to take tennis lessons with a white woman named Jean Hoxie, a stern disciplinarian who teamed with her gentler husband, Jerry, to coach future pro Jane (Peaches) Bartkowicz and fifteen other Michigan high school singles champions. On that trip, Althea would stay in a luxurious downtown apartment, courtesy of another benefactor, Joe Louis.
THE SUMMER OF 1946, the reigning ATA junior champion entered the organization’s championships at Wilberforce, Ohio, as an adult. Althea, not yet nineteen, had little trouble advancing to the final to play Roumania Peters.
Peters and her sister Margaret, known in the black tennis community as Pete and Repete, were the ATA equivalent of today’s Williams sisters. If one didn’t beat you in a tournament, the other likely would. They’d started playing in the early 1930s while growing up in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., at the colored courts at 26th and O Streets. Later, they both played varsity tennis at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. During World War II, entertainer and tennis buff Gene Kelly was stationed in Washington, and he paid at least one visit to 26th and O to play with the Peters sisters.
In the first ATA national championship she entered, in 1936, Roumania reached the women’s final. (In 1938, Margaret followed as an ATA finalist, losing to Flora Lomax.) By 1946, Roumania Peters was considered the ATA’s finest female player, yet Althea matched her almost point for point at Wilberforce. Peters won the first set by a single service break, while the second set in the best-of-three match threatened to last all day before Althea finally won it. With an ATA open-bracket title within her grasp on her first try, Althea began to swing wildly, launching balls wide of the net. Peters won the third set and the championship. It was the last ATA tournament match that Althea would ever lose.
By the time it had ended, two black doctors watching from the grandstand had plotted Althea’s future. The first was Dr. R. Walter Johnson of Lynchburg, Virginia, known as “Whirlwind,” a general practitioner and surgeon who had dedicated his life to black tennis. Johnson was a skilled natural athlete. He’d played football at Lincoln University in the early 1920s, played it with such verve that the governor of West Virginia made a trip to West Virginia State in 1922 to watch Johnson compete for Lincoln. Johnson must have been something to see on the football field, for Southern politicians of the day did not often attend sporting events contested by Negroes.
After college, Johnson coached football and baseball for several years across three states, then went to medical school. While doing his internship at Prairie View A&M in Texas in the early 1930s, he played his first game of tennis. He didn’t play it well; in fact, this renowned athlete had trouble finding anyone who would stand across the court and hit him balls. Ultimately, he prevailed upon a woman named Agnes Lawson to teach him the basic strokes. Later, Lawson would come to Lynchburg to train with him. She won the ATA’s women’s singles title in 1939, then again in 1940. Johnson had a keen eye for spotting and nurturing talent. His guidance helped Katherine Jones upset Roumania Peters to win the ATA women’s singles final in 1945.
Johnson was no technician, but he was a natural teacher with an easy manner, and a selfless benefactor. He’d salt away money in a Christmas Club account so he’d have savings for the warm months, then fill his old green Buick with as many players as it could hold and set out for an ATA-sanctioned tournament somewhere. He’d be in Ohio one week, Pennsylvania the next, Kentucky after that, an endless summer of serves and volleys and match points. He was single then and his children were grown, so he was responsible for nothing but his patients and his tennis. With his bald head and steel-rimmed glasses, he was a familiar sight at black tournaments up and down the East Coast.
Dr. Hubert Eaton, a successful surgeon from Wilmington, North Carolina, watched the Gibson-Peters match from the grandstand seat beside Johnson. Eaton had been the ATA’s doubles champion with George Stewart in 1943, and he would win again in 1949, 1951, and 1956. Like many of the black champions of his day, he was impeccably educated. After spending his entire childhood in a segregated community and attending college at all-black Johnson C. Smith in Charlotte, he matriculated at the University of Michigan in 1937, intending to get a master’s degree in zoology. When he arrived there, the only black in his graduate class, he could not distinguish between the various white faces he saw.
More than two dozen times during his years in Ann Arbor, which also included medical school, he traveled home to North Carolina. Each time the bus reached Bluefields, Virginia, the driver halted his vehicle, stepped from his seat, faced the passengers, and made the following announcement: “We are about to enter the state of Virginia. By law, all colored persons must move to the back.” Eaton was a lifelong Southerner, the son of a doctor, a quiet man who loved fishing and reading, and no revolutionary, but hearing this legal endorsement of inequality made him determined to use his talents to help redress it.
Eaton developed a thriving practice in Wilmington and made money. He built a tennis court beside his house, and it quickly became one of the few places in the state where interracial matches were played. England’s Fred Perry, that iconic champion, competed there once, as did some of North Carolina’s best white players. In a self-published autobiography titled Every Man Should Try, Eaton described his tennis philosophy as taught to him by his own mentor, Dr. Charles W. Furlong of Smithfield, North Carolina: “I played a controlled game of tennis, as I had learned to live a controlled life. Dr. Furlong taught me to place the ball carefully, to be consistent, and to wait for my opponent to make a mistake.”
The Althea Gibson he watched lose to Roumania Peters at Wilberforce could not have played any less like this description. Inconsistency was her hallmark. She would show flashes of brilliance, then fade into a stupor. She didn’t have solid strokes to fall back on when her timing was off, and she tried to hit the ball as hard as she could on most every shot, except when she came to net. She’d usually commit far more unforced errors than her opponent, but she almost always hit more winners, too.
Even before the Peters match, Johnson and Eaton knew all about Althea. She was, they figured, about the most naturally talented African-American player of either gender to come along in years, perhaps ever. You could tell that by how little she knew about the game yet how well she played despite her ignorance. While watching her play that week in one match after the next, the two doctors concocted their plan. Althea would spend the summers riding from state to state in Johnson’s Buick, with nothing to divert her attention from tennis. She would spend each school year in Wilmington, North Carolina, with the Eatons, getting the high school diploma she lacked, and learning the work ethic and discipline that a structured life imposed.
In Althea Gibson, Eaton and Johnson saw a reclamation project, but they also saw something more. The World War had ended the year before, and the black servicemen who had fought alongside America’s whites (in theory, if not so often in the foxholes) were returning home having tasted a certain amount of equality. Already back-channel negotiations were taking place between ATA executives and the USLTA about one day integrating the major white tournaments. It was 1946, and Jackie Robinson was starring for the Montreal Royals, one step below the major leagues. The following spring, he would be a Brooklyn Dodger. Eaton and Johnson saw his potential equivalent in this scrawny competitor from Harlem. Unlike Robinson, she was more than a year away from being able to compete against whites on the national level—but then, the whites were more than a year away from letting her do it.
Johnson approached Althea after the Peters match and unveiled their plans for supporting her. She was sitting in the grandstand alone, “at life’s darkest moment,” she would later write, when a man approached and asked if she might like to play at Forest Hills.
“Of course I’d like that,” she said. “But you know that’s impossible.”
“It is impossible now,” Johnson said, “but if you are willing to work hard enough, I believe you are the key to unlock the door.”
Johnson asked her to stay where she was and excused himself. Minutes later, he returned with Eaton. Together, they presented their vision of her future. When they finished talking, Johnson asked her if she was interested. “Who wouldn’t be interested?” Althea replied. She had nothing to lose; her life of late-night bowling and recreational basketball was at a standstill. According to Eaton, she then returned home to New York to get a signed letter from her mother. Bobby Johnson, Whirlwind Johnson’s son, distinctly remembers Althea riding back to Lynchburg with them that night and returning to New York from there.
In any event, Althea arrived in Wilmington that September on the morning train, carrying two cardboard suitcases and the saxophone Ray Robinson had bought her. She was anxious and hungry, but ready for a new life.
IN WILMINGTON, Althea would mature from a teenager into a woman. It wasn’t easy. At first, the Eatons made her eat in the kitchen, not the dining room, because her table manners were abhorrent. And upon entering Williston High School, an adult in the eyes of the ATA and the law, she didn’t qualify academically even for the freshman class. She hadn’t attended school in years.
Outside the Eaton house, Althea was exposed to a North Carolina of the late 1940s, which was relentlessly segregated. Blacks such as the Eatons were successful by any reckoning, but they lived separate lives from whites. The object of the laws was to eradicate all contact between blacks and whites that whites didn’t initiate. Blacks were welcome in a white home, but only in a subservient position such as cook or domestic, in which they would speak only when spoken to. The Eatons had a butler and a chauffeur—black, of course—and that tennis court in their yard, but they still couldn’t sit at the Woolworth’s lunch counter and eat a hot dog.
As a New Yorker, Althea was accustomed to going where she wanted whenever she pleased; she could ride the subway to Midtown and not engender a curious glance. She could drink from whatever water fountain, eat at whichever restaurant, use any washroom she wished. In actuality, she spent most of her time with other blacks, but little was stopping her from living as integrated a life as she chose to.
Though she’d fought against regulations all her life, she was smart enough to realize that segregation wasn’t her battle to win. So she moved to the back of the bus, ate her hot dogs on the street, watched her movies from the balcony. But she wasn’t happy about it.
In Harlem, she could step into a poolroom, shoot a game, and think nothing of it. She could drink a beer or a gin-and-tonic, smoke a cigarette, and disappoint nobody. She was no one’s charge but her own. Living with the Eatons, she had to conform to the Southern ideal of femininity. She was barred from poolrooms, had to wear dresses and lipstick, and when she excelled at sports, her classmates whispered disparagingly that she threw a ball just like a man would. She played saxophone in the school marching band, and in a local jazz combo, and she played basketball for Williston, breaking the school single-season scoring record—as far as anyone knew; in that era, few records of women’s sports were kept. In her three years in Wilmington, her team didn’t lose a game.
Althea also needed time to adjust to the regularities of academic life. Dr. Eaton’s goal was to get Althea through high school so she could win an athletic scholarship to a black university. To do that, she needed to attend school daily, something she hadn’t done in a decade. She persevered. By the time she graduated at twenty-one, she ranked tenth in her class.
Once school had ended each June, she would pack her clothes into her cardboard suitcases, grab her saxophone, and travel to Lynchburg. She spent the summers of 1947, 1948, and 1949 on the ATA circuit, traveling with Dr. Johnson and his other pupils. They were mostly college students at that time, though later he would come to specialize in coaching youths with some potential: a sort of black Nick Bollettieri, decades early, but spending his own money and working for nothing. When he could get away from his practice, Eaton would meet his players at the various tournaments, the majority of which Althea won.
At some point, Althea found herself at a segregated dance near Camp Story, Virginia, up the river from Newport News. She shared a dance with a soldier, just eighteen, who was down from the Aberdeen Proving Ground. Smitten, Kirk Ellerson invited her to a recreation camp that was being prepared for soldiers returning from Europe. “There’s a Congressional inspection team coming that week,” he told her. “They need volunteers to show off the facility.”
They could play softball, ride horses, swim, shoot baskets, run laps on the beach, he said, and Althea agreed that it sounded enticing. Accordingly, they met one morning later that week and staged a mini-Olympics. As it developed, everything that Ellerson did, Althea managed to do better. He’d been swimming all his life but was astonished to see her swimming faster. He didn’t know about the Mysterious Five, but he wondered where she’d learned to shoot a basketball so well. “I had just never encountered a female with those kinds of abilities,” he says now. “We went swimming, we played softball, we went horseback riding. Everything she did, she did as well as any boy.”
Ellerson was mesmerized by this woman from the big city whom he found so attractive and compelling. Who was she? Where would her talents lead her? He wrote her name and address in a little book he kept of women who interested him, but he never tried to contact her. Years later, working in Europe, he opened a newspaper to see Althea’s face staring out at him as the Wimbledon winner. He dug out the book and found her name, and the memory of that idyllic day came flooding back. He was married by then, and his wife could plainly read the emotion in his face. “She was upset with me for a good while,” he recalls. “That was how strong an impact Althea had had on me.”
ON THE COURT IN HIS YARD, Dr. Eaton tried to teach Althea discipline. Her game at that time veered from dominating to catastrophic, tethered to her mood. Down 4–1 in a set, she’d rarely fight back. If she wasn’t winning, she wasn’t enjoying herself. Instead, she’d fall into a sulk that could last for hours.
“On the days she won she was all smiles; on the days she lost her face went blank and she seemed depressed,” Eaton later wrote. She was the same way about cards, basketball, and any other game she tried. She wanted to win more than her opponent, and, as a result, she usually won. “I can’t remember ever beating her at a single thing,” Bobby Johnson would recall. “We played tennis through the years, and I never won so much as a set.” Later, Eaton would realize that Althea’s single-minded emphasis on winning was the mark of a champion. She carried it with her the rest of her life.
Traveling with Dr. Johnson, she avenged her 1942 loss to Nana Davis to win the ATA singles championship in 1947. She would win it each of the next nine years in succession, finally choosing to skip the event in 1957, when she was the reigning Wimbledon and Forest Hills titleholder.
Althea graduated from Williston High in June 1949, and a proud Ray Robinson paid for her class ring. That fall, at age twenty-two, she entered Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee on an athletic scholarship, her room, books, and tuition paid. Tallahassee was as segregated as anywhere in the country. No restroom facilities existed for blacks anywhere in the downtown shopping district. Blacks were forbidden to try on shoes or hats in downtown stores. Carrie Meek, who later served in the U.S. Congress, grew up in the city and recalls her mother telling her to immediately step off the curb if she saw a white person approach. “They don’t want you on the same sidewalk as them,” she’d warn.
Meek attended Florida A&M because state law prohibited a person of color from attending another state school. “We’d had a strong women’s athletic program, but when Althea came, she was the entire program wrapped into one woman,” Meek says. “She was so outstanding, so skilled in every form of women’s sports, she was the epitome of what you would call a superstar.” Florida A&M didn’t have a women’s tennis team, so Althea stayed sharp by practicing with the men, though she wasn’t allowed to compete with them against other schools. In a yearbook photo of the day, she stands in the center of the tennis team photograph, as tall as the tallest man. She is thin but muscular, and her hair is cut far shorter than the prevailing fashion. If you don’t look closely, you’ll mistake her for a man. And yet, Meek recalls, she had a strong sense of her own femininity. Excelling in athletics was perceived as a masculine pursuit in the Tallahassee of that time and in society at large, but Althea made an effort to always carry herself like a woman—and beyond that, a lady. She had learned from the Eatons. For a time, she went out on dates with a student from Miami named William Burrough. She’d dress up for him, even wear perfume.
At the same time, she constantly fell afoul of basketball coach Julia Lewis, not because of anything that happened on the court, but because of her transgressions off of it. When the Florida A&M team traveled to play other all-black institutions throughout the South, the team behaved under very strict guidelines. These were females between adolescence and womanhood, and they had to be chaperoned in the fashion that their parents would expect. Althea was three years older, the age of a typical senior when she arrived as a freshman, and she’d walked the streets of New York since childhood. She wasn’t going to sit in a hotel room in someplace like Birmingham or Atlanta when there was a world to be seen.
“She would break curfew and she would smoke, and some of the girls would go tell the coach,” says Edwina Martin, a teammate. “Coach Lewis could hardly manage her, because she always had an answer back. Althea was a very strong person in that way.” The same infractions would have sidelined any other player, but not Althea. She knew she was good enough to break the rules and not face punishment. The same aggressive attitude carried over to the court. “She was a rough player, which was why she was so good,” Martin says. “Most of the girls were timid.” Althea was so competitive that her friends stopped playing tennis with her, until she agreed to let them win occasionally. It wasn’t so much to keep their spirits up as to defuse the competitiveness that she brought to every activity she attempted. They wanted her to learn that one could stand across the net and hit the ball to a friend and not worry about who was winning—or even keeping score, for that matter. Althea agreed, but she didn’t see the purpose of it.
She was popular, but on her own terms. “She didn’t go out seeking anyone’s company,” says Robert Mungen, a classmate who later coached tennis at Florida A&M for thirty-two years. “She had more men friends than women friends, because the women didn’t really understand what she was all about. She was an athlete, more than anything, and ahead of her time. You just didn’t see women athletes like that back then.”
AWAY FROM COLLEGE, Althea continued to focus on her tennis. In early 1949, while still in high school, she had integrated two USLTA-sanctioned tournaments in New York. Any tournament could theoretically make its own decisions regarding whom to admit, depending on the qualifications necessary to enter and the rules of the facility where it was being played. On March 11, 1948, Reginald Weir had played in the men’s bracket of the U.S. Indoors to officially break the USTLA color barrier. To the sport’s more progressive element, it was about time. American Lawn Tennis, which would serve as Althea’s champion in the years that followed, began its report on the event with a sarcastic description of its repercussions: “The first Negro has played in an American tennis championship,” Harold Rosenthal wrote, “and, at this late date, there have been no reports of any worlds having split asunder as an aftermath.”
In 1949, Althea became the second black and the first black female to compete with USLTA sanction. She lasted until the quarter-finals of the Eastern Indoor Championships, held at the armory on 143rd Street, then lost in straight sets to Betty Rosenquest. She remained in New York the rest of that week, and the whole of the next, for the U.S. Indoor Championships. It is impossible to say whether she stayed with her family while in New York, or if they even bothered to attend her matches. She hadn’t broken with her parents, but neither was she regularly in touch with them. It is known that she spent most of her free time in New York with the Robinsons, at their apartment or the bar-and-grill on Seventh Avenue. She wasn’t quite a conquering hero, but as the best female tennis player in the country among blacks, she’d come home with far more cachet than she’d left with.
The U.S. Indoors were played at the hulking Seventh Regiment Armory, which filled an entire block of Park Avenue between 67th and 68th Streets. At that time, before the advent of artificial surfaces, indoor tennis was contested on shiny wooden floors, like basketball courts. This all but ruled out backcourt rallies; you’d serve the ball and rush the net to try to force an error. The terrain suited Althea’s serve-and-volley tendencies, and it also aided those who had learned the game on the fast concrete courts of Southern California. At the same time, the substandard lighting of the armory cast an iridescent blue glow and made the ball difficult to see. Althea won her first two matches, losing just one game to Ann Drye, then beating Sylvia Knowles in three sets. This put her into the quarter-finals against Nancy Chaffee of Ventura, among the most talented of the Californians.
Chaffee would later marry Baseball Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner, and then sportscaster Jack Whittaker. She was often compared to one movie star or another (though she didn’t especially resemble any of them physically), and she comported herself with a flair uncommon to tennis players of that day. (“Tennis Didn’t Come Easy for Nancy Chaffee, It Had to Compete With Parties!” ran the headline over a feature on the gregarious Chaffee in This Week magazine.) But she remembers seeing Ray and Edna Robinson sitting beside Jackie Robinson and his wife, Rachel, in the bleachers at the armory—the only black faces in evidence—and feeling intimidated knowing such celebrities were rooting for her opponent. Chaffee calmed herself with the thought that Althea was doubtless more nervous than she was. If she beat Chaffee, Althea would advance into the semifinal against Gertrude Moran, “Gorgeous Gussy,” who had titillated Wimbledon with the half-inch of lace trim on the panties beneath her tennis dress the previous summer. A Gibson-Moran semifinal would be a newsworthy event.
It didn’t happen. Chaffee’s fierce ground strokes neutralized Althea’s acrobatics at the net. Althea hit the most spectacular shots of the day with volleys and backhand winners, but the more consistent Chaffee had little trouble winning, 6–2, 6–3. In the other half of the bracket, Helen Germaine beat Nina Irwin, whose own game had come quite a distance from the Cosmopolitan Club, in three sets. And in the doubles competition, Rosenquest and Irwin beat Althea and Germaine. It was a small universe of talented players. Althea may not have been the best of them, but she was holding her own. “She can hit like a boy,” the former U.S. champion Sarah Palfrey Cooke, who would later befriend Althea, was moved to note, “and cover the court with huge cat strides.”
Chaffee, who would win the event from 1950 to 1952, remembers the Althea of that time as confident to the point of cockiness. “I think she was trying to convince herself she was a great player,” she said shortly before her death in 2002.
Althea wasn’t yet great in 1949, but she was on her way. She had developed one of the best serves in women’s tennis, and a deft touch at the net, though she still flailed at ground strokes as though she were trying to swat a bumblebee. It was the propensity to move to net that led onlookers to remark that she played like a man, not the substantial velocity with which she usually hit the ball. There were other hard hitters among the women of the day, but nobody who combined such strength with a nimble athleticism. “She was very light on her feet,” Chaffee said. “It reminded me of Alice Marble.”
Jack Kramer, the standout amateur and professional player and tennis promoter, would make the same connection at about the same time. He said, “She has the best chance to be a champ in the manner of Alice Marble that I’ve seen.”
ANY COMPARISON TO MARBLE would have been distinct praise. By 1949, Marble had retired from amateur tennis with eighteen singles and doubles titles from Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals alone. She’d also already lived enough in her thirty-six years to fill three lives. Growing up a tomboy in San Francisco, she caught someone’s eye at thirteen and found herself serving as a mascot for the Pacific Coast League’s San Francisco Seals. She shagged flies with Joe DiMaggio, played catch with Lefty O’Doul, then turned to tennis as a viable substitute for her real desire, which would have been to play professional baseball. In 1929, at age fifteen, she reports being violently raped by a stranger. She developed a friendship with Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, and William Randolph Hearst bought her a green Chevrolet. She recovered from anemia and pleurisy—and a misdiagnosis of tuberculosis—to win U.S. singles titles in 1936, 1938, 1939, and 1940. She even had a brief singing career, appearing once at the Waldorf-Astoria. After losing a baby to a miscarriage because of an automobile accident, she learned that her husband, Capt. Joseph Crowley, had been killed when his plane was shot down over Germany. An attempted suicide by overdose was thwarted when her friends discovered her unconscious but still breathing.
At about that time, fact and fantasy begin to blur. As detailed in her 1991 autobiography, Courting Danger, she claimed to have rekindled a prewar romance with a Swiss banker at the urging of the U.S. State Department. While staging a series of tennis clinics in Switzerland, she writes, she surreptitiously photographed a ledger of Nazi investments, and was shot in the back trying to flee. Marble’s astounding revelations are impossible to verify. “It was terribly meaningful for her to have been accepted as having served her country as a spy, and I suspect she believes that she did,” says Judge Robert Kelleher, a Californian since the 1950s who served as the USTA president and America’s Davis Cup captain, and knew Marble well. “But I think you’ll search in vain for any evidence.” According to a spokesman, the U.S. State Department has no record of an Alice Marble having been in government employ during the war.
Marble had always been a strong and independent woman. She returned home from her espionage work—or whatever else she might have been doing in Switzerland—having sharpened her already keen sense of justice. It seemed absurd that a player of talent should be denied a place in the USLTA’s national championships merely because of skin color. Having been exposed to other sports, Marble was able to understand that amateur tennis was insulated from real life, and all the poorer for it. “She had a streak of fairness, of empathy for the underdog,” said Billie Jean King, who, while she was still Billie Jean Moffitt, received instruction from Marble in the late 1950s. “You measure if you can make a difference in certain battles, and Alice knew she could in this one.”
The editorial she wrote in American Lawn Tennis, championing Althea’s cause, changed the history of the sport. In a small way, it also changed the course of American history. Who knows which courageous act tipped the balance away from segregation, toward a free and equal society? Perhaps blacks would ultimately have played in the U.S. Championships, just as they eventually integrated the National Basketball Association, the Augusta National golf club, and the modern incarnation of the United States Senate. But without Alice Marble, it certainly wouldn’t have happened in 1950.
IN THE SUMMER OF 1950, Alice Marble was a revered former champion, Althea Gibson a rank outsider. Yet beneath the veneer their lives had accumulated, a few levels deeper than skin color, they shared common traits. Neither fit the contemporary stereotype of a female tennis player: a nice girl who used the game like she used the foxtrot—as a social skill.
Like Althea, Marble was a tomboy during childhood, excelling in athletic competition against boys. Her body language as an athlete was routinely described as masculine; over the course of their careers, both women heard that they played tennis like men more often than they could count. Yet they’d wear silk dresses when the occasion warranted, and could cut a glamorous figure. In an undated photo of Marble standing alongside Carole Lombard on the tennis court, the only way to tell the athlete from the movie star is Lombard’s thickly applied eyeliner and lipstick.
Both Marble and Althea often set themselves apart from the crowd, yet they were crowd-pleasers who loved to perform. Marble had a brief singing career in 1941, while Althea would release a long-playing album and appear on the Ed Sullivan Show sixteen years later, each rather overestimating her own level of vocal talent. (Althea was a passable singer; Marble, by most accounts, objectionable.) Both were forthright and funny, and unmindful of the consequences. Both would nurse lifelong beliefs that they hadn’t received their due credit as tennis players. Marble was the first female player to routinely follow her serves to net. Two decades later, that serve-and-volley strategy would propel Althea to the upper echelon of world tennis.
Marble hadn’t met Althea as of early 1950, despite playing that exhibition match at the Cosmopolitan Club. But she may have been aware of some of the commonalities and connections. More than that, she nurtured a strong belief that tennis was headed in the wrong direction. A sport run by and for the country-club set could hardly succeed as popular entertainment. It had to be integrated, aired out, thrown open to all.
Marble was unaware of the negotiations that Bertram Baker, the ATA executive director, and Arthur Francis, his lieutenant, had quietly initiated after World War II with some USLTA members in an attempt to integrate the U.S. Championships. Harold Lebair was their most important supporter at the USLTA. Tall and thin, sporting a small mustache and rimless glasses, usually wearing a rounded collar beneath his suit coat and occasionally adorning himself with a straw hat, he looked like a nineteenth-century daguerreotype, but his thinking was thoroughly modern. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with high honors, he is remembered as intelligent, scrupulous, precise, and fair. For many years, he worked as a national advertising salesman for the New York Times, and served the USLTA as its chairman of umpires and, later, its treasurer.
Liberal and Jewish, Lebair was an anomaly in an organization that was nearly as averse to change and homogeneously WASPish as the clubs at which most lawn-tennis tournaments were played. Without fanfare, he put the first women in umpire’s chairs at Forest Hills. By 1950, he’d come to see integration of the U.S. Championships, which were played there beginning at the end of every August, as both necessary and inevitable.
Perhaps because of the dialogue with Lebair and others, or else because of the strides being made in other sports and the first stirrings of the civil rights movement, a sense was growing within the ATA that getting a black player into the nationals might soon be possible. At the same time, it had become evident that Althea was ready for better competition. In August of 1949, she had beaten Nana Davis, the second-or third-best African-American woman playing at the time, by 6–0, 6–0 at the Cosmopolitan Club. Then she returned to Wilberforce to again defend her ATA title and didn’t lose a set in the tournament. In the final, she made short work of Mary Fine of Kansas City, 6–3, 6–2. A succession of such matches were stunting her growth. “In second-rate company, where the ball is set up for her, she is dynamite,” Hamilton P. Chambers, a veteran sportswriter who had seen her play at the U.S. Indoors in New York, was quoted as saying. “Against a hard hitter, and once on the defensive, she is lost.”
At Wilberforce, Dr. Eaton again had asked Althea if she would be interested in playing at Forest Hills, should the occasion arise. It wasn’t a moot question. If the treatment of baseball’s Jackie Robinson was any example, the first black player entered in the U.S. Championships would be subject to severe scrutiny, perhaps ridicule, sabotage, even death threats. While the tennis community was hardly as rural, Southern, or uneducated as big-league baseball was, it was far more closed and elitist. Whoever would attempt to integrate that society would need to be strong enough to concentrate on playing matches despite a maelstrom of distractions, for a poor showing would hurt the cause considerably. “I’m ready,” was Althea’s steeled reply.
But the USLTA wasn’t ready, and it had a convenient out. No player, black or white, could be invited to Forest Hills until proving his or her mettle at several of the grass-court tournaments that led up to the national championships. And because those tournaments were held at private clubs, the USLTA believed it was under no obligation—indeed, had no authority—to mandate which players should be allowed to enter them. Nearly all of these clubs were officially segregated, which gave Althea no recourse other than the legal system, a path the ATA had vowed not to take. Beyond that, female players were usually housed during tournaments at the homes of individual members, the pillars and paragons of the local social and business communities. It served as a point of distinction for some chamber of commerce type to announce to his colleagues that the likes of Sarah Palfrey Cooke was staying at his home for the week. In the vast majority of those homes, Althea would not have been welcomed.
Still, she continued to play as the only nonwhite at the USLTA-sanctioned tournaments that would have her. She played the Eastern Indoors again in late February 1950, and beat Millicent Lang 6–3, 6–1 for the title. At the U.S. Indoors that followed, she advanced to the final with a three-set victory over Midge Buck. Her rival for the title was Nancy Chaffee, who had missed most of the previous season with an ailing back. Althea had clearly improved since losing to Chaffee the year before, and expectations for a memorable match were high. Instead, Althea played poorly, winning just two games in two sets.
Nevertheless, she managed to impress Howard Cohn of American Lawn Tennis, who praised her serve and, “when she has it under control,” her powerful forehand. “Miss Gibson obviously needs more competitive experience,” he wrote, but how was she to get it? April became May, May became June, and Forest Hills was less than three months away. Althea waited for a sign. She left Tallahassee after her first year of college and headed to Wilmington, knowing she might well end up back in the Buick with Dr. Johnson, traveling to the same segregated tournaments she’d dominated during previous summers. Forest Hills seemed closer than ever, a theoretical possibility for the first time, yet in practice it remained unreachable.
Such was the atmosphere when an editorial by Marble appeared on page 14 of the July 1950 issue of American Lawn Tennis, occupying most of a densely packed page. It read, in part:
For every individual who still cares whether Gussy [Moran] has lace on her drawers, there are three who want to know if Althea Gibson will be permitted to play in the Nationals this year. Not being privy to the sentiments of the USLTA committee, I couldn’t answer their questions, but…[w]hen I directed the question at a committee member of long standing, his answer, tacitly given, was in the negative. Unless something within the realm of the supernatural occurs, Miss Gibson will not be permitted to play in the Nationals….
I think it’s time we faced a few facts. If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentlepeople and less like sanctimonious hypocrites. If there is anything left in the name of sportsmanship, it’s more than time to display what it means to us. If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge on the court, where tennis is played…but if she is refused a chance to succeed or to fail, then there is an uneradical [sic] mark against a game to which I have devoted most of my life, and I would be bitterly ashamed.
We can accept the evasions, ignore the fact that no one will be honest enough to shoulder the responsibility for Althea Gibson’s probable exclusion from the Nationals. We can just “not think about it.” Or we can face the issue squarely and honestly. It so happens that I tan very heavily in the summer—but I doubt that anyone ever questioned my right to play in the Nationals because of it. Margaret du Pont collects a few freckles—but who ever thought to omit her name for such a reason? The committee would have felt pretty foolish, saying “Alice Marble can’t play because of that tan” or “We can’t accept Margaret du Pont; she gets freckles across her nose.” It’s just as ridiculous to reject Althea Gibson on the same basis….
The entrance of Negroes into national tennis is as inevitable as it has proven to be in baseball, in football, or in boxing; there is no denying so much talent…I’ve never met Miss Gibson but, to me, she is a fellow human being to whom equal privileges ought to be extended.
The editorial resonated. Within days, it had been mentioned prominently in the pages of the New York Herald Tribune, the New York Post, Life, and Time, among other influential journals. But despite its eloquence, the obdurate Maplewood Country Club refused to allow Althea into the USLTA-sanctioned New Jersey State Championships, which it was hosting. She was crestfallen. The best players in America and Althea were on parallel paths that seemed destined never to meet. On July 8, 1950, for example, Althea sleepwalked through a 6–0, 6–0 demolition of her good friend Rhoda Smith in the New York State Championships at the Cosmopolitan Club, while Margaret Osborne du Pont, who had married one of those du Ponts, was winning a USLTA event at the all-white Essex County Club in Manchester, Massachusettes. The following week, Althea beat a white woman, Isabel Troccole, 6–2, 6–2, in an open event in New York. But she couldn’t gain admission to any of the tournaments that would prove her standing for the USLTA, and she wasn’t a member of any USLTA-affiliated club because none would have her. It was an old story, this de facto segregation, and it was frustrating her.
Then came a breakthrough. A truck salesman named Jack Rosenquest had a talented daughter named Betty, who, as Betty Rosenquest Pratt, would rise as high as fifth in the USLTA rankings in 1954. (Althea had lost to Betty Rosenquest in the quarterfinals of the 1949 Eastern Indoors.) One of Betty’s practice partners was a Jewish boy named Dick Savitt, several years her junior. They’d ride their bikes to the local courts and hit there for hours, Savitt roaming the baseline to retrieve everything Rosenquest hit his way. Then Savitt spent a year in Texas with an uncle and emerged with an explosive serve. “After that, I wasn’t much of a practice partner for him,” she remembers. In 1951, Savitt would win the Gentlemen’s Singles title at Wimbledon.
The Rosenquests also happened to live across the street from the Orange Lawn Tennis Club in South Orange, New Jersey, where the Eastern Grass Court Championships had moved from Rye, New York. Using the Marble letter to open the dialogue, Rosenquest managed to convince the officers of the Orange club to issue an invitation to Althea. It would be good for the image of the club, he said, and for the image of tennis in the United States. The invitation was the first crack in the armor, a major step. But Althea played poorly at South Orange, the first tournament she’d ever contested on grass. She lost in the second round, which left her fate unresolved.
Shortly thereafter, Althea received and accepted an invitation to the National Clay Court Championships at the River Forest Club near Chicago. She did better there, beating the light-skinned Mexican champion Mela Ramirez before advancing to the quarterfinals. There, she lost 6–2, 6–3 to Doris Hart, a premier player who would rank No. 1 in the world the following year.
Though the tournament had been contested on clay, not grass, her results seemed to provide information—as the USLTA called it—that Althea could be at least competitive on the shamrock-green lawns of Forest Hills. On August 5, 1950, the New York Amsterdam News wrote that Althea was ready and waiting. “A more seasoned Althea Gibson is all set to compete in the National Tennis Tournament [sic] at Forest Hills, L.I., later this month, if she receives an invitation,” the article read. It quoted the latest unofficial reports saying that Althea “is slated to receive a bid.”