‘American Masters: Althea’ gives Gibson her due

Althea Gibson was a tough girl who grew up to be a tough woman. This biographical documentary, “American Masters: Althea” premiered on Friday, Sept. 4, 2015, during the U.S. Open, and at the beginning of Labor Day Weekend both of which might have stolen its potential audience away, but it is currently available online at PBS.org. This is a must-see for people interested in sports, issues of race and women.

The 90-minute documentary includes over 450 vintage photographs as well as clips of Althea Gibson in her prime and after and interviews conducted during her lifetime. Producer and director Rex Miller comes to late to give us interviews with Gibson (1927-2003) made specifically for this documentary, but he does include interviews with people who knew her such as former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, Wimbledon champions Dick Savitt and Billie Jean King and the widow of Arthur Ashe, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe.

King served as one of the films executive producers but she also gives spirited commentary on how the view of women has changed and how tennis has changed since the 1940s. While most people remember Arthur Ashe as the first African American man to win Wimbledon, Althea Gibson was the first African American to win at Wimbledon as well as the first African American woman in 1957. Neither was, however, the first black person to win a tennis title there. She was, however, the first person of color to win a Grand Slam title (1956).

Gibson was the product of of both a tough sharecropper family whose father moved them from South Carolina to Harlem where she benefited from a Police Athletic League program and later, a shrewd tennis program under Walter Johnson–the same man who would later mentor Arthur Ashe. Gibson came to tennis by way of paddle tennis.

We hear little about her sisters and one brother but a lot about how tough her father was on her. Being raised as if she was a boy, she became a fierce competitor at a time when women in tennis still took pains to be lady-like.  Her street tough attitude stayed with her and made her not quite fit in with the upper middle class affluent black community who had also taken up tennis. Yet Johnson’s program taught the niceties of polite society, emphasized education and helped support the black tennis players who were faced with overt racism and sometimes covert acts of intimidation.

Yet perhaps the most interesting is how other women helped her. America’s former top woman player and California native Alice Marble’s open letter to the American tennis world resulted Gibson’s invitation to compete in the U.S. Open at Forest Hills, making her the first black person to receive an invitation. Here, Miller is careful to give us a sense of just what kind of place Forest Hills was and is.

What I found most touching were interviews of her doubles partner and good tennis friend Briton Angela Buxton. Buxton’s highest world ranking was 9, but she won the French Open and the Wimbledon doubles championships partnered with Gibson in 1956. However, Buxton, like Gibson was excluded from tennis clubs because she was Jewish. No Jewish players were admitted to the All England Lawn Tennis Club until 1952. At the end of Gibson’s life Buxton showed uncommon grace and friendship.

After Wimbledon, the race barriers were still in place and Gibson was not welcomed with the kind of opportunities that greeted other former tennis greats, but it was also a time that tennis wasn’t big money, even for professionals. At the end, Gibson felt the love of tennis, but now, this documentary shows us how much women in tennis and women of color owe to this gutsy woman.

“American Masters: Althea” is currently available to view online at the PBS American Masters website.You’ll also find information about Gibson at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, race in tennis and Gibson’s timeline.

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