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Women's Tennis Pioneer Gibson Has Died

(USTA NEWS) - Althea Gibson, a sports pioneer who broke the color barrier in tennis in the 1950s as the first black woman to win Wimbledon and U.S. national titles, died Sunday. She was 76.

For the latest information on the funeral arrangements for Althea Gibson, please click here.

Gibson had been seriously ill for several years and died at
East Orange General Hospital in New Jersey , where she had spent the last week, according to Darryl Jeffries, a spokesman for the city of East Orange .

Gibson was the first black to compete in the
U.S. championships, in 1950, and at Wimbledon , in 1951. However, it wasn't until several years later that she began to win major tournaments, including the Wimbledon and U.S. championships in 1957 and 1958, the French Open, and three doubles titles at Wimbledon (1956-58).

"Who could have imagined? Who could have thought?'' Gibson said in 1988 as she presented her
Wimbledon trophies to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.

"Here stands before you a Negro woman, raised in Harlem, who went on to become a tennis player ... and finally wind up being a world champion, in fact, the first black woman champion of this world,'' she said.

The eldest of five children, Gibson was a self-described "born athlete'' who broke racial barriers, not only in tennis but also in the LPGA. She even toured with the Harlem Globetrotters after retiring from tennis in the late 1950s.

But it was in tennis that Gibson had her greatest success. She picked up the game while growing up in
New York , slapping rubber balls off a brick wall. She then met Fred Johnson, the one-armed tennis coach who taught her to play.

Gibson won her first tournament at 15, becoming the
New York State black girls' singles tennis champion. Boxer Sugar Ray Robinson helped pay for her travels.

She spent her high school years in
Wilmington , N.C. , where Dr. R.W. Johnson took her into his family's home and let her play on his grass court. Dr. E.A. Eaton coached here there, and Gibson would later credit him with helping her cultivate the grace and dignity she needed on and off the court.

"No one would say anything to me because of the way I carried myself,'' Gibson said. "Tennis was a game for ladies and gentleman, and I conducted myself in that manner.''

She attended Florida A&M on a tennis and basketball scholarship, and then began her ascent in the American Tennis Association, founded in 1916 for black players.

In 1950, she was the first black to play in the National Grass Court Tennis Championships, the precursor of today's U.S. Open, coming within a point of beating
Wimbledon champion Louise Brough.

She broke the racial barrier at
Wimbledon the following year, but disappointment at losing nearly caused her to give up the game for the Army in 1955.

A year later, she blossomed during a nine-month tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department, winning 14 tournaments, including the French and Italian championships, and reaching the finals in the three she did not win. She also captured her first women's doubles championship at
Wimbledon .

Although beaten at
Wimbledon in the singles and losing in the final round at the U.S. championship in New York , she was on top of her game and in 1957 began a two-year run as champion of the top two tournaments in tennis.

Gibson was named Woman Athlete of the Year in 1957 and 1958. Following her 1957
Wimbledon victory, she was given a ticker-tape parade in New York City and an official welcome at City Hall.

More than 30 years passed before another black woman, Zina Garrison, reached the final at
Wimbledon (1990), and 10 years after that before Venus Williams emerged as a champion at the All England Club.

``It would be foolish to forget Althea Gibson, also. She was the first,'' Williams said in 2002 after becoming the first black tennis player at No. 1 since Arthur Ashe.

Gibson retired from the game soon after her 1958
Wimbledon and U.S. titles because there was no prize money and few lucrative endorsements.

"If she had been a half-step later (in her tennis career), she would have been a multimillionaire,'' said longtime friend and former
New York Mayor David Dinkins.

She briefly tried singing, then signed a $100,000 deal to play in exhibition tennis matches before Globetrotter games in 1959.

In 1960, she took up golf in 1960 and became the first black woman on the LPGA tour in 1962, but won no tournaments and earned little money.

She was inducted into numerous halls of fame. In 1975, she became state commissioner of athletics in
New Jersey , a job she held for 10 years. She then served on the state athletics control board until 1988, and the governor's council on physical fitness until 1992.

Her layoff from the council marked a turn in Gibson's fortunes. In recent years, the former champion became ill and suffered two cerebral aneurysms and a stroke.

Her finances also declined, and Gibson isolated herself as she struggled on Social Security, not wanting anyone to see her condition.

When news of her situation spread in 1996, admirers around the country held fund-raisers and benefits to ease Gibson's financial burdens.

Letters with cash and checks also began to pour in, including one with two $100 bills from Mariann de Swardt, a ranked South African tennis player.

"I focused on your game when I learned how to play, and I wanted to thank you,'' the note read.

"She was one of our heroes, and we wanted her to spend her remaining days in dignity,'' said Pam Hayling Hoffman of Atlanta, a fund-raiser whose father was Gibson's doctor in New Jersey in the late 1950s.

"She was a great woman, who suffered from racism and yet never, never became angry even though it had to have hurt her a great deal,'' Hoffman said. "It's important for all people who care about human dignity to salute her and recognize her greatness.''

Gibson was born
Aug. 25, 1927 , in Silver, S.C. She lived in East Orange for most of the last 30 years, and Jeffries said the head of the foundation Gibson started to encourage urban youth to play tennis and golf asked the city to release the news of her death.

The 20th Annual Coca-Cola Circle City Classic

The Annual Coca-cola Circle City Classic will be held Saturday, October 4, 2003 between the Florida A&M Rattlers and Jackson State Tigers.

Annually 150,000 people from across the country travel to the city of Indianapolis to be a part of an Electrifying Weekend… A weekend that consists of a spectacular parade that is unparalleled to any other in the city… A weekend that brings mega-super stars to the Circle City…A weekend filled with the battle of the bands… and a weekend that feature two historically black colleges colliding, head-to-head on the gridiron at the RCA Dome. That's right it's a classic Weekend, The Circle City Classic… The Name Says It All!

In 1983, during construction of the RCA Dome, there was a significant effort mounted to develop events and activities to be conducted in the new facility. The Mayor's Office and a blue ribbon committee of community leaders worked to attract events that eventually included a Chicago Bears pre-season game, college football games featuring Notre Dame versus Purdue and Indiana versus Illinois , and the Indianapolis Colts professional football franchise.

The Mayor's committee funded a fact-finding trip to the Bayou classic held in New Orleans to determine the feasibility of hosting a similar event in Indianapolis. It was determined that the event would meet Indianapolis ' goals of increasing tourism while also generating revenue for the new stadium. With a $150,000 grant from the Lilly Foundation and incredible volunteer support, Indiana Black Expo and the Indiana Sports Corporation collaborated to stage what has become the top, Black college football classic in the nation.

Nearly 40,000 spectators attended the first game featuring Grambling versus Mississippi Valley State on October 13, 1984 . On that day, Jerry Rice and Mississippi Valley State staggered a powerful Grambling football team 48-36 and the excitement has never stopped.

Over the eighteen years of the organization's existence, there have been changes, but the original objectives (demonstrating the strength of the African-American consumer; highlighting the advantages at historically black colleges and universities and providing scholarships for students) have not changed. Professional staff has been added, volunteer numbers have increased significantly and fans come in greater numbers from farther away to be a part of the Circle City Classic weekend. From the beginning, Circle City Classic leadership has placed an emphasis on developing a quality unmatched by "other classics". In 1999, Black magazine recognized the Circle City Classic as our nation's top, Black college football classic. The criteria cited for this selection included the quality of game match-ups, ancillary events, and community support.

The classic organization established a loyal fan base with a goal of selling out the stadium by the 10th anniversary. The first sold out event occurred in 1990, the classic's seventh year of existence. Most of the attendance growth over those years came from Midwest markets including Chicago, Detroit, Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Louisville and St. Louis. The composition of the additional fan base guaranteed that a significant portion of the classic's attendees would commit to expenditures comparable to short vacations. In fact, many plan the weekend as a family outing with children.



Last updated: October 3, 2003

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