♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ [ Crowd cheering ] BILL: It was just an amazing day, an amazing day.
Althea playing at Forest Hills and being the first black player to be able to play was major.
Was a beautiful, sunny day.
Beautiful, sunny day.
And she walked on the court to play Louise Brough, who was the best player in the country at that time.
[ Cheers and applause ] NARRATOR: Nearly 2,000 spectators jammed the stands, and the Pinkertons had to close the gates.
Among the spectators were hecklers shouting, 'Beat the nigger.'
Althea blocked them out.
'I was too arrogant and antisocial,' Althea said.
'I was not conscious of the racial difference.'
BILL: Althea won the first set, was up in the second set.
And out of left field, the sun and the blue sky turned black just as Althea's about to close the match out.
But there's no way she could have lost. None.
And in two seconds, the rain came down like buckets.
MURTHA: And at that time, one of the eagles that adorns the top of this gorgeous stadium was knocked off.
I would guess it might have been lightning, but it was certainly something that was tremendous in strength and power.
ALLEN: When we walked up to the stadium, we saw this huge eagle.
So I'm thinking, 'Oh, my God.
To be in the stadium, for the thunder and lightning to come, to strike one of these in such a way for it to tumble to the bottom, it was as if the tennis gods were, like, saying, 'Oh, no, this can't happen.
We got to do something to stop this match.'
♪ WOMAN: They tell me I was born on August 25, 1927, in a small town in South Carolina called Silver.
[ Crow caws ] My father, Dush, and my mother, Annie, both lived in a little cabin on a cotton farm.
Daddy wouldn't have minded me being a tomboy at all.
[ Rooster crows ] He wanted a son, so he always treated me like one.
♪ Daddy always said, 'The big man, he buy the cotton.
He gave you the lowest he could give you for it.'
[ Birds chirping ] Daddy and my uncle only had five acres of land.
Even if things had gone well, they couldn't have put anything by.
'I worked three years for nothing,' Daddy said.
'I had to get out of there.'
♪ Movin' ♪ Movin' ♪ Mo-o-o-o-vin' ♪ Down ♪ The road ♪ BOB: Althea came down a hard road.
She was a street kid.
She lived in a depressed community.
She had a rough life, and she was aggressive.
She was instinctively aggressive, and I think that has a lot to do with where she came from and how she got there.
If we were products of our own environment, then, you know, Althea came to tennis an aggressive female that had to learn how to survive.
CARRINGTON: Althea didn't go to school from the time she was 12 years old.
She went to high school from like 18 to 22, and so that gap of years between 12 and 18, Althea was pretty much, you know, moving around the streets.
SIMPSON: Her father really wanted a boy.
YOUNG MAN: [ Grunts ] SIMPSON: Every day, he prepared her as a boy.
[ Car horns honking ] They would go up on the rooftop, and he would have her actually physically fight against him.
He held nothing back.
Punishing each other -- Can you imagine some of the blows that she had to take to prove to her father that she was tough enough?
It was just like she was fighting for her life.
He knew that if she could one day take him, that she was ready to take care of herself.
Playing the game of tennis against an opponent across the net, hitting a fuzzy tennis ball -- that was like ice cream and cake.
[ Children shouting ] GIBSON: Well, it was paddle tennis that started it all.
At that time, my parents was living at 143rd Street between Lennox and 7th Avenue.
And that happened to be one of the play streets, and they had all types of games up and down the street -- hoop basketball, marbles, loadies, and paddle tennis.
And that paddle tennis court was right in front of my parents' stoop of that building.
One summer morning, I came down and a friend of mine, we hung out together, we played together, we roamed the streets together.
We saw two bats and a ball on the paddle tennis court.
So we started hitting back and forth, and from that moment on, we would get up in the morning.
As soon as they laid the court out, we were the first ones on.
We stayed on, and we challenged anybody on the block to play us.
So that's how I got started.
BOB: Well, I think growing up in Harlem really did help to develop Althea's aggressiveness because in street games, you stay on the field when you win.
You get off the field when you lose.
Who wants to sit down and watch?
Althea was the epitome of winning every time and at all cost.
Tennis is a game where you learn from the people around you, but early on, Althea was her own girl.
GIBSON: I was introduced to the play street director named Buddy Walker, who happens to be a band leader and plays tenor sax.
We have, in those years, a tennis club called the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club.
That was the black elite tennis club in those years.
And he introduced me to the club.
BILL: This was a private black club that had five clay courts.
And it was primarily a club with what we might call in those days the black bourgeoisie.
♪ CARRINGTON: The educated African-American mirrored his white counterpart.
So the black doctor wanted for his family the same kind of recreation, the same kind of nice homes, same kind of facilities that the white doctor had.
Whatever he got exposed to when he went back into his community, he took that.
BOB: We got to see and rub shoulders with and converse with people that were extremely well-educated people.
But these are the kind of people that began to have an influence on Althea and to show her that there was another way, that you could play a different kind of game and succeed at it.
But you had to play the game.
GIBSON: Well, my style of play, I believe, was aggressive, dynamic, and mean.
BILL: Althea was a rough type of person when she first came out of Harlem into the tennis environment and probably didn't have some of the social graces that they thought would be more amenable to being accepted.
CARRINGTON: One of my main mentors was named Hilton Davis, and he was telling me about how when Althea lost to this Nana Vorne when they were juniors and he laughed in the stands.
She ran off the court and ran up into the stands to beat up this man.
Althea was known to be tough.
You know, that's why she was kind of special to me, because Althea, like myself, was urban, and we carried the urbanness.
We didn't hide it.
You know, I was proud of where I was from, I was proud that I was a Northerner, I didn't want to hold my head down.
[ Light harpsichord music plays ] BOB: Growing up in an inner city, it is really a survival of the fittest in many ways.
Now, when you transition that over to tennis, it's very alien to get into a competition with somebody, maybe get your brains beat out, and then walk up to the net, quietly shake this opponent's hand, and congratulate them for having beat your brains out.
It's just not something that we instinctively wanted to do.
Those are the kinds of genteel skills that one needed to learn to become a tennis player.
And those were the challenges that many of Althea's mentors, like Sugar Ray, had to teach her.
[ Bell dings ] Sugar Ray Robinson loved -- believe it or not, he loved tennis.
And he took a liking to Althea and realized the potential that she had.
BILL: She met Sugar Ray Robinson, and he did a lot for her.
And Robinson put in her head that she could be another Sugar Ray Robinson.
So then she started believing in herself.
♪ BILL: We could immediately see she was a gifted athlete.
She was a few years older than I was, and she started taking lessons from the same coach that I did, a man by the name of Fred Johnson, who ironically only had one hand and one arm, and he would hold the ball and the racket in the same arm.
GIBSON: And he took me on to teach me how to play lawn tennis.
He taught me the basics, the footwork, the service motion.
I won the ATA Girl's Singles Championship at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club through the tutelage of Fred Johnson at the time.
ANNOUNCER: Tennis today is packing them in on courts all across the 48 states.
This match between two queens of the courts, Miss Peters of Tuskegee and Miss Althea Gibson of New York, draws a large crowd.
For tennis, it's said, holds a strange fascination over the people who watch it.
[ Patriotic music playing ] CARRINGTON: So, there's a time in our history in America where African-Americans could not participate in organized major sports.
So what we did was form our own organizations.
We formed the American Tennis Association, which was the first sports organization founded by African-Americans in 1917.
And it was pretty much a who's who recreational circuit for the black intelligentsia.
Althea Gibson, she had a couple people that really supported her, that she really liked, but overall, this was not her world.
She had a lot of hostility towards the black middle class who actually supported her.
And a lot of the black middle class had hostility towards Althea as a result of her attitude.
She took to tennis, but she didn't want to take the culture of the middle class.
All of the etiquette of the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club was foreign to her, but she really wanted to make a point that 'this wasn't my background.'
♪ WOMAN: 'I'm ashamed to say I was still living pretty wild.
I stopped going to school.
I was supposed to be looking for a job, but I didn't look very hard because I was too busy playing tennis in the daytime and having fun at night.
Some of the Cosmopolitan Club folk who brought me out from New York were pretty disappointed in me.
I remember one of them saying they were through with me because they didn't think much of my attitude.
SIMPSON: I think the thing that she was very much lacking was knowing that someone really cared for her and really wanted to help her succeed in life.
Dr. Hubert Eaton, to me, was one of the two godfathers of black tennis.
JOHNSON: Back in 1946, my grandfather approaches Althea with Dr. Hubert Eaton and posed the question about whether she'd be interested in playing the U.S. National Championships, Forest Hills, the Mecca of American tennis and national championships.
And, of course, when she heard that, she thought these guys are either snake oil salesman or some kind of charlatans.
No way that that was gonna be possible given the social backdrop and landscape of the time.
♪ Hey, hey, hey, ey ♪ Mm, hmm, mm-hmm ♪ Hey, hey, hey, ey, ey ♪ Mm, hmm, mm-hmm ♪ Hey, hey, hey, ey, ey EATON: One of the two of them, either Whirlwind or my father said, 'We ought to try to do something to help this girl, young physicians who are really enthusiastic about tennis.
So they made some inquiries and found out this young lady was about 18, 19 years old and hadn't been going to school.
They made her an offer, saying, 'Now, Althea, you've got a lot of talent, but in the world that we live in, you can't really improve your game or move up until you get some education.'
JOHNSON: So the master plan was to split time in North Carolina during the winters, where Althea, with Dr. Hubert Eaton's family, would work on getting her education and high school degree.
And at the same time, in the summers, come to Lynchburg, Virginia, and spend the entire summer with my grandfather, Dr. Johnson, traveling and training on a daily basis with the rest of his charges that were part of the Elite Junior Development Program that he was starting to form.
SIMPSON: Blacks wanted to be represented in major league tennis.
When they saw Althea Gibson in the '40s, they saw a Jackie Robinson.
JOHNSON: I think he saw the challenge in front of them.
'Why wasn't there more color in the game of tennis?'
was really a question of access.
BILL: He trained almost the same that we do today.
You know, drills, backhand, forehand, lot of balls.
They have to hit about 12,000 balls a day, you know, hard as you can hit.
♪ BOB: The best minority players in the country were being brought into one location to hone our games, so he arranged to bring us together, and we traveled, playing tournaments with one another.
We learned to get along and support one another because we were a very select few people that were allowed to go out and play in these tournaments.
[ Engine turns over ] We went to Ohio.
We were in a small town, and we were staying in a YMCA, and they allowed us to play in the tournament to the chagrin of many of the players and their families.
We were asleep in the middle of the night, and that fire ax came through the door.
I mean, we jumped up.
It was a frightening experience.
To see an ax through your door is a frightening thing.
And, of course, when we finally did open the door, nobody was there, but there was a note that said that we should go home, which we did not do.
Dr. J was cool as he could ever be.
He said, 'We know this is gonna happen.
Don't worry about it.
You won't get hurt.'
And we went on and played.
CARRINGTON: He promised our parents that he would take care of us and always our safety would come first.
EATON: I don't know how much Althea knew about the South before she came.
Of course, the school systems were totally segregated, a real Apartheid.
Althea came to Wilmington in September 1946.
She lived upstairs in our two-story bungalow on Orange Street.
On the way home, there was Brown's Pool Hall right on the corner of 11th and Orange.
So she stopped in one day and started to shoot some pool, and people, as they are in small towns, noticed her and then got on the phone and called, said, 'Doc, your girl up there playing pool at Brown's Pool Hall!'
So when she got home, my mother and father talked to her, said, 'Now, in the South, ladies don't go in pool halls.'
And that was the end of that.
CARRINGTON: Unless you really grew up in that kind of segregation, it was kind of hard to enjoy being away for a summer of tennis based out of Lynchburg, Virginia.
Just the name -- Lynchburg, Virginia.
The only place we could play tennis was in the backyard, and when the top white players wanted to come and work out with us, they had to come and play in the yard, and we would have matches sometimes that would take eight hours.
We'd start in the morning, and one match after another, just play in the yard all day.
Dr. Johnson got permission for us to practice at a public school hard courts, 'cause we were going to the ATA Nationals, and it was on hard courts.
And so we got this permission, and I've never been called nigger so many times in my life as when we were out at the courts.
And it was just, like, a powerless thing.
I was out there, and the football team was practicing that day.
And so as the football team was leaving the field, they were like, 'Look at those niggers play.
Where you learn how to play tennis like that, nigger?'
And it was just the most incredible -- And so the Southern boys looked at me, Lynwood, and these guys were like, 'Art, you know the only thing you can do is get hurt down here.'
SMITH: Dr. Johnson was a practicing physician, so he had to get to work every day, but he would give us a schedule, not only a practice schedule, but also the chores that we had to do each day.
When we ate dinner, he would give us our lessons in etiquette -- how to use your silverware, How to... scooping the soup away from you, those type of things.
CARRINGTON: The first time I sat down at the table to eat, I took two biscuits, and he really went into a thing.
'You don't take two biscuits here, and you don't have to fight for food.'
You know, so etiquette was really, you know -- Dr. Johnson was a true pioneer.
BOB: We had our marching orders.
You go out there, you play the way you know how to play, you question no calls, you challenge nobody.
If you get a bad call, walk away.
And his idea was, if you question it, you will be perceived as the one that stopped everybody else from being able to participate.
Pre-Martin Luther King, that was his Martin Luther King strategy for getting us to be accepted into USTA tournaments.
ALLEN: There was a sense of pecking order.
It wasn't a sort of thing like, 'Okay, great.
Everybody did a good job today.
Everybody gets a badge.'
It wasn't like today's society that if you show up, you get a ribbon.
If you were gonna be one who was gonna travel, then you were gonna have to work your buns off, you were not gonna be allowed to have any kind of attitude or be disgruntled or -- You just weren't.
You just had to be on your best behavior.
I mean, and you knew it.
He was preparing you to deal in a world that didn't want you, because if you could survive at Dr. J's, then nobody else could come up with anything more difficult and without really stressing, you know, 'You can't go out there and act like this around those white folks.'
That was never said.
So it was more of how you're representing yourself.
BOB: I think what that brought to Althea was the first sense of discipline.
You can't do everything that you want to do when you want to do it.
JOHNSON: She recognized that this was something that she absolutely wanted to do but knew based on dealing with Dr. Johnson and Dr. Eaton, it wasn't gonna be her way or the highway, it was gonna be their way.
WOMAN: We had some good times making those summer tours.
I played in nine tournaments that first summer and won every one of them.
For whatever it was worth, I was the best woman player in Negro tennis.'
BOLLETTIERI: Everything she did was with elegance.
Her movement was very, very graceful, like a dancer.
But she was built to play tennis -- long, lean, long legs.
MURTHA: Althea was a most impressive and imposing figure on the court.
She was tall, willowy, very graceful.
DINKINS: Enormous wing span.
You wouldn't know how in the hell anybody could ever get anything by.
♪ BOLLETTIERI: She played the total game.
She covered the whole court.
She would come into the net.
She could slice the ball.
RIVKIND: I have here another picture of Althea serving, which is, to me, a classic because she's doing everything correctly.
She's reaching up for the ball.
She's looking at the ball as she hits it.
And everything is just perfect form.
SIMPSON: I can remember after hitting with her one day at Dr. Eaton's.
She said, 'You have a football, Lenny?'
I said, 'Yeah.'
She said, 'Go home and get your football.'
This young lady threw that football at least 50 to 60 yards right on the button.
Could have been a quarterback on any NFL team.
MAN: I mean, she could run.
This woman could really run.
That's why she could serve and volley.
She had a good volley game.
KING: The one thing Althea had was self-confidence in her ability as an athlete, and that came through loud and clear by her mannerisms, her body language, what she said, how she said it.
She took no prisoners.
Everyone could feel her presence.
She had a stage presence.
You'd feel her.
She'd walk in a room, you'd feel her.
SAVITT: It was very intimidating when she walked on the court.
Her walk, her look.
She basically scared the hell out of a lot of the girls.
None of the women wanted to play her.
And so she had that edge over them psychologically.
BOB: Often, my coach would put me on the court with her, and the dominant thing that I remember about Althea is her willingness to hit me with tennis balls.
If I came to the net to volley, she would try to knock me down.
This was Althea's way of expressing her superiority to us.
She was the champion.
We were her hitting partners.
And remember that.
GIBSON: Of course, in those years, I was struggling to become well-known as the first black player to compete against world-class champions.
SAVITT: It was the USTA.
I don't know if they had a written rule or not.
I don't think they had a written -- probably an unwritten rule.
And they just barred anybody of color from playing.
KING: Everything was white -- the balls, the clothes, the people, the socks, the shoes, everything.
MYERS: Althea wanted to play there.
'Just give me the stage, and I will show you what I can do.'
It was not about race.
[ Typewriter keys clacking ] WOMAN: On my current lecture tour, the question I am most frequently expected to answer is whether Althea Gibson will be permitted to play in the Nationals this year.
When I directed the question to a committee member of long standing, his answer was in the negative.
Miss Gibson will not be permitted to play, and it will be the reluctant duty of the committee to reject her entry at Forest Hills.
I think it's time we faced a few facts.
If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it's also a time we acted a little more like gentle people and less like sanctimonious hypocrites.
We can accept the evasions, ignore the facts that no one will be honest enough to shoulder the responsibility for Althea Gibson's probable exclusion from the Nationals.
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.
It's just as ridiculous to reject Althea Gibson on the same basis, and that's the truth of it.'
[ Cheers and applause ] BOB: I got the chance to go out to Forest Hills with Althea.
I warmed Althea up before she went out to play, and it was a remarkable experience.
It was the Mecca of tennis, and it was something that was very alien to us.
♪ People that have not been to Forest Hills don't understand that it was in a community.
So you'd park in somebody's driveway, and they would charge you $5 to watch your car while you were in there.
And then you'd walk in.
BOLLETTIERI: And there was that clubhouse like a Tudor home in England sitting by itself and say, 'Hey, to get in here, you have to be somebody.'
Even when the tournament was on, to get in was a feat in itself.
And then to go up in the locker room to go to the bathroom, holy mackerel, you know, that was unbelievable.
BOB: The smell of the food as you walked in, the people with the hats, the players with the sunscreen, things like we had never seen is just so mind-blowing and intimidating.
BOLLETTIERI: There's no crowd like the New York crowd.
There ain't no crowd like the New York crowd, and there never will be, whether football, basketball, the marathon, or tennis.
[ Cheers and applause ] BOB: And once you walk into the stadium, there's a new world that opens up to you.
SAVITT: The press coverage was big, cameramen all over the place, and so they walked on the grandstand court next to the stadium.
MAN: It was a shame that it was in the grandstand because so many people weren't able to see her.
They were turned away, but they were looking under the fences, under the windscreens, climbing in the trees, looking down on the court to get a glimpse of this wonderful young lady.
[ Crowd shouting ] GIBSON: The first time I played at Forest Hills, it was against, I think, the defending champion at the time, Louise Brough.
SAVITT: Louise always had a tendency to get nervous.
She had a bad service toss, and her forehand got a little shaky, but for some reason, she just felt extremely nervous.
It looked that way to me.
GIBSON: I was beating her a set apiece, and the third set, I was leading.
And all of a sudden, the clouds open up... [ Thunder rumbles ] ...the sky got dark as if they didn't want me to win this match, and the rains came pouring down.
Lightning came immediately and struck the eagle on that corner of the stadium and tumbled it down.
[ Stone crumbles ] And they had to postpone the match.
I had to sleep on that overnight.
ANNOUNCER: Now the tennis world wonders, will young, unknown Althea oust the star?
All she needed was one game.
[ Applause ] The pressure was too much for young Althea Gibson.
She lost her touch.
Miss Brough took full command.
For Althea, it was a heartbreaking experience.
GIBSON: And the next day, I came out, I didn't have nothing.
I lost all sting, and she beat me.
[ Indistinct chatter ] MAN: I have sat in on many dramatic moments in sports, but few were more thrilling than Miss Gibson's performance against Miss Brough because of the great try by this lonely and nervous colored girl and because of the manner in which the elements robbed her of her great triumph.
[ Snare drum tapping rhythmically ] [ Drum line cadence playing ] BUXTON: My first encounter with Althea was at Queen's Club when I was still in my school uniform with my straw boater hat and my satchel on my back.
She was playing on court nine near the gate, so I sort of wheedled my way in.
And lo and behold, there she was serving and volleying, looking like a young man.
She hit the ball much harder than I'd ever seen before.
She was coming off the court, so I quickly produced a little notebook from my work satchel and asked her to sign something for me.
She looked at me, and I said, 'I'd like to play like you one day, possibly win Wimbledon.'
She says, 'Well, not before I do.'
[ Laughs ] [ Cheers and applause ] DELL: In those days, it was a totally different tour than it is today.
It was in the clubs.
You stayed in private housing.
You stayed with club members normally.
There was no money.
You got your expenses if you were lucky.
And if you were a very good player, you might make $200 a week to cover your expenses.
KING: We went to country clubs during the day.
It was a nice life.
It was fun.
And you were never gonna get ahead financially.
You know, they used to have a term called the tennis bum -- We're kind of tennis bums.
We would just kind of live off rich people week to week is basically what we were doing.
Well, you feel uncomfortable.
[ Laughing ] I can tell you, you don't know what to do because you know these people are very wealthy.
They have a certain way of thinking about the world in a certain way, and you're kind of walking on eggshells the whole time.
I always was.
DELL: The clubs were very restrictive.
I mean, I would say 95% of the clubs that players played in had no black members.
In many cases, they had no Jewish members.
And they would allow the week of the tournament for Althea Gibson or Arthur Ashe to play because they wanted to see the best players.
But certainly, they couldn't become members.
MYERS: As far as Althea was concerned, it was not about representing the race.
KING: Arthur and I used our tennis as a platform.
That's not what she wanted.
She just wanted to play.
'Just let me be one of you.'
And, unfortunately, in the '50s, it just wasn't that easy.
It's just not gonna be like that.
♪ BUXTON: They sent them to the Far East to do clinics and to play tournaments.
The motives behind the State Department Tour in the 1950s was to try and impress on the wider world at large, particularly the black communities over there, that tennis was a good sport to play for blacks and for whites and blondes, and you could have fun whatever color you were or whatever background you came from.
BUXTON: She was sent with a girl called Karol Fageros from Coral Gables, Miami, who was very pretty.
And they selected her particularly because she was a good tennis player and she was good-looking, as well, and here was Althea in contrast -- black, also good tennis player.
I was sent there, too, by the British Lawn Tennis Association.
So I chummed up with the American girls, and I became very friendly with Althea and Karol.
Their flight ticket was a return ticket to the United States at the end of the month, and Karol went home, but Althea talked to me about the possibility of staying on.
And she asked me could she last out to play all the tournaments between January and July, which was Wimbledon, on the money.
And I said to her, 'Well, I think you could.
And if you don't, you've always got your return ticket to use.
You can go back again.
I'll see you in Paris,' 'cause the Paris Indoor was coming up in February.
And I said, 'If you like,' I said, 'we'll play doubles together.'
So she said, 'Yes, okay, let's do that.'
She was a curiosity, and most tournament organizers wanted her because she was an attraction.
People had never seen a black player before, and they didn't know black people could play tennis.
And so they were prepared to pay her expenses, so she had a little money.
She was learning to be professional.
She was learning to look after her body, because if she became sick, she was out in a tangent.
She couldn't last.
You see, she needed the money every week.
She became very meticulous with what she ate, the time she went to bed, the time she got up in the morning, the rest and the practice, everything.
She was much, much more professional during that six months.
It made her, really, because she felt not only did she have to keep well, but she had to win, as well.
CARRINGTON: So, this is a picture of the finalists at the 1920 ATA Championship in New York.
On the left here is B.M. Clark, and he came from Jamaica.
And on the right is Tally Holmes, who was the current champ from Washington, D.C.
Tally Holmes, by the way, was a Dartmouth graduate maybe 1916, 1917.
And B.M. Clark was the first black man to play in Wimbledon.
He played Wimbledon in 1924.
Like I said, he was Jamaican, so you can see the ATA was an international tournament.
It wasn't just African-Americans in the North.
It was a tremendous influence on Northern tennis from the West Indies community because they had tennis in Jamaica, they had tennis in Trinidad, they had tennis in the Caribbean Islands where these people came from.
CARRINGTON: You really don't know black tennis if you don't know who Sydney Llewellyn was, because he was black tennis in the New York/New Jersey area in the '50s.
He was a dominant personality.
He was very flamboyant.
♪ Sydney Llewellyn was a Jamaican that came to American at 18 years old.
First time I saw him, he pulled up, he was wearing a safari hat with a safari jacket.
He was New York all the way.
He came to America to be a professional dancer.
He said, 'I'm a mack man.'
He's the first one to use the word 'pimp' and not meaning prostitutes, but charisma, character, style in the black language.
He helped Althea develop the self-confidence that allowed her to be a champ.
He wasn't her initial coach.
Fred Johnson was that.
Dr. Johnson, Dr. Eaton -- these guys helped her in the ATA.
But she didn't win any titles until she was with Sydney Llewellyn because Sydney Llewellyn was the mental man.
You know, he worked from a mind game.
And so, he helped Althea tremendously mentally.
♪ [ Applause ] ♪ Well, I'm ready, I'm willing♪ ♪ And I'm able to rock and roll all night♪ ♪ I'm ready, I'm willing♪ ♪ And I'm able to rock and roll all night♪ ♪ Come on, pretty baby ♪ We're gonna rock, we're gonna roll♪ ♪ Until the morning light ♪ I'm ready, mm-hmm ♪ And I'm willing, mm-hmm ♪ Well, I'm willing and I'm able♪ ♪ So you better come and go with me♪ ♪ We gonna rock and roll till the morning 'about 3:00♪ ♪ Talking on the phone is not my speed♪ ♪ Don't send me no letter, I can't read♪ ♪ Don't be long, 'cause I'll be gone♪ ♪ We'll go rock and rolling all night long♪ ♪ 'Cause I'm ready, I'm willing♪ ♪ And I'm able to rock and roll all night♪ ♪ I'm ready, I'm willing...♪ ANNOUNCER: Once a year, the world's best tennis players come to Wimbledon for the All England Championship, the unofficial equivalent of the World Championship.
Favored to win the Women's Singles in 1957 is Althea Gibson from New York, USA.
But there may be an upset.
Her opponent for the semifinal is a 16-year-old British girl, Christine Truman, the young blond prodigy who has trounced several of the top seated stars.
For Althea Gibson, this is a crucial match in her 10-year-long effort to become the world's best tennis player.
Althea has a big, powerful game.
She overwhelms the British girl.
The score, 6-1, 6-1.
The great test is still to come.
Queen Elizabeth of England is among the spectators at the final.
Here, Althea Gibson faces Darlene Hard, a fellow American from California.
Even Miss Hard applauds.
[ Applause ] Althea is in top condition.
And it's all over, 6-3, 6-2.
Darlene is a good loser.
[ Applause ] Queen Elizabeth walks onto the center court to present the trophy.
This is Althea Gibson's reward for many years of effort.
It's a moment crowded with memories.
JACK: The young woman we are honoring today truly deserves our tribute.
She is a product of our city.
She came up the hard way, and now stands at the top of her class.
She reached the top not only because of her natural athletic ability, but because of her unwavering courage and determination to be a champion.
MAN: Well, Althea, how do you feel about your victory at Wimbledon?
GIBSON: Well, I feel quite elated, and quite happy about it, of course.
It was a... Well, it was a good thing.
I went over there to win Wimbledon, and I succeeded.
MAN #2: Althea, when you left for Wimbledon two weeks ago, I understand from Buddy Walker that he and two others were the only people to see you off.
Is there a big change in the situation a few weeks later?
GIBSON: Well, yes.
A great big change.
JACK: Althea, you're a champion in a world of champions.
What you have done has added strength and meaning to 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' and is as truly American as the stars and stripes.
How you reached that goal is an inspiration to all Americans.
What you came through to sit here today, honored by your fellow citizens of all races, creeds, color, and religion is ample proof that in our democracy, we take the leadership in emphasizing human achievements as we move ever forward in our vigorous crusade toward full equal opportunity.
[ Applause ] DALY: Will you come in, mystery challenger, and sign in, please?
[ Applause ] We'll ask one question at a time in turn, moving clockwise.
And let's begin with Dorothy Kilgallen.
KILGALLEN: Are you in anything other than the motion-picture industry?
GIBSON: [ High-pitched ] Yes.
CERF: But are you principally a movie star?
FRANCIS: Well, are you in the theater?
DALY: Two down and eight to go.
CERF: Would you say that your field was athletics of any kind?
DALY: Ms. Kilgallen?
KILGALLEN: Have you been to England within the last few weeks?
DALY: Ms. Francis?
FRANCIS: Well, are you our -- practically our best tennis player, Miss Althea Gibson?
[ Applause ] ANNOUNCER: In 1957, she meets Louise Brough for the U.S. championship, the same Louise Brough who had dealt her that heartbreaking defeat seven years earlier.
[ Crowd murmuring ] [ Cheers and applause ] The U.S. title, which has eluded her all these years, is what she's after now with all her might.
She is relaxed and confident.
This time, she's sure of herself.
[ Cheers and applause ] [ Cheers and applause intensify ] Louise Brough, great player though she is, cannot stop her this time.
At the end, the score stands at 6-3, 6-2, and Althea Gibson is the new champion of the United States.
She stands in the big stadium in her hour of triumph.
Her long years of struggle are forgotten in the ovation, the tribute of her fellow countrymen as they rise for her.
[ Patriotic music plays ] As the Vice President of the United States presents her with the trophy, it's a dream come true for Althea Gibson, tennis champion.
♪ [ Cheers and applause continue ] CARRINGTON: After she won, Sydney Llewellyn had told her, 'Okay, you did it once.
Now show them that it wasn't a fluke.
Go back and do it again.'
♪ [ Crowd cheers ] BUXTON: The Wimbledon ball was full evening dress, and it was by invitation mainly, and it was like Hollywood.
The photographers, they were all on the sidewalk as the players stepped out of the taxis to go into the hotel.
And they would be identified in whispers, you know -- 'This is Althea Gibson, over there.'
The evening of the ball was a very joyous occasion.
It was a part of the ceremony that the women's winner would open the dancing with the men's winner.
I just put a good word in to the band, actually, as whether they would entertain the fact of Althea singing a song or two with them.
And they said, 'Certainly, with the greatest of pleasure.'
She brought the house down, of course.
'Cause no one really was expecting her to sing.
In fact, I think she sang ♪ I can't give you anything but love, baby♪ I think that's the song she sang.
GIBSON:♪ I can't give you anything but love, baby♪ [ Applause ] MAN: It's now point set for the match and title.
Althea Gibson is still the women's world champion.
MURROW: Good evening, Althea.
GIBSON: Good evening, Mr. Murrow. How are you?
Well, with all the matches you've won, you could probably use a second apartment just to display the trophies, couldn't you?
GIBSON: My goodness, yes.
There's the French trophy over here that I won in Paris, France.
Isn't this a beautiful, little thing?
-GIBSON: It's very dainty.
MURROW: Very nice.
Is that a hi-fi set, there?
GIBSON: Yes, it is, Ed.
This is one of my great pleasures and joys, when I'm around the house and listening to the wonderful music.
And, also, Ed, this is my first album.
As a matter of fact, would you like to hear one of the selections?
MURROW: Very much.
I think you will like it.
[ Music plays ] It's 'Around the World.'
[ Chuckles ] ♪ Around the world, I've searched for you♪ WOMAN: Naturally, I'm always glad when something I do turns out to be helpful to all negroes or, for that matter, to all Americans, or maybe only to all tennis players.
I don't consciously beat the drum for any cause.
Not even the cause of the Negro in the United States.
CARRINGTON: Althea Gibson was our Jackie Robinson.
So this wasn't just tennis.
This was a woman that was really held in high esteem.
HAYLING: She was pressured to be more outspoken, but she wanted to be a person who did it through her racket.
DAVIS: And she felt showing people what a person from the ghetto could accomplish was more than just talking in front of a group.
MAN: She never got into it like Jackie Robinson did.
So they all -- black people had no use for her, in a way, at that time.
'You're not helping out.'
You know, she should've been down there to fight 'cause she's a celebrity.
She didn't make any speeches or nothing.
♪ SCHIFFMAN: People will look at a star baseball player and listen to what he says about politics.
He doesn't know the first damn thing about politics, But because he's a hero, and because he's a major figure, his opinion means something.
Well, for that reason, I think that any reluctance on the part of a performer or an athlete to get into the fray when it comes to the betterment of the conditions of their people was ill advised.
They should've done it right from the beginning.
DAVIS: I guess we was too absorbed in ourselves.
[ Chuckles ] I don't think she really felt her denials or hardships were a civil rights thing.
MAN: Althea, did you find, in getting to the top of the tennis world, that you had any real great obstacles because of your race?
Or did you find a surprisingly easy road?
GIBSON: No, I don't think that there were any obstacles as far as race is concerned.
BUXTON: I was born into a Jewish family in England.
During the war, when I was a small child in South Africa, as an evacuee, we lived in Cape Town, and we shared a sort of communal patio right at the foot of the mountain, on the back door.
And this little black girl, who was the same age as myself, pretty little girl, used to come out after school and play, and so did I.
We developed a friendship.
And a friend of my mother's said, 'I would stop that friendship right away if I were you.
It's not right in this country for white people to befriend black people.'
And I was stopped seeing her.
And I never really understood it.
My mother didn't, either.
But we were, in a way, there in South Africa, the kind permission of the South African government.
We didn't want to upset the apple cart in any way at all, 'cause they might ask us to go home.
So she agreed.
But we never really understood it, because she thought -- and I thought because she thought -- that they were just the same as us.
What was the matter with that?
And I never met any other black people until I met Althea.
With Althea, I found a kindred spirit, one could say.
We were like soul mates.
ANNOUNCER: One favorite who will be missed on the courts this year is Britain's Angela Buxton, who has injured her wrist.
But we'll be seeing American champion Althea Gibson.
and Angela has designed an outfit specially for Althea.
She's joined a London sportswear firm as a designer, and this is one of her models.
BUXTON: By this time, I was already number one in the game in England.
And I went up for the Easter tournament and asked them if they could supply somebody for me to hit with.
And I never heard.
And eventually, the journalist from the Southport Visiter, he said, 'They had a meeting about you, and they decided no Jews at this club.
And therefore they would not allow you to practice there.'
In Althea's company, I never felt anything like that at all, which I did with the other girls.
People reacted to Althea, in Great Britain, in a shocked sort of way.
They didn't say very much because we're not very talkative about these things.
We tend to keep them to ourselves.
But black people weren't really accepted.
We didn't have a lot in England, actually.
So, again, this aroused even more curiosity.
When she did come to stay with me, there were a few raised eyebrows in the block of flats, and I was asked how long she was staying, 'cause one or two of the unit owners had noticed her and wanted to know whether she had moved in, actually.
But I didn't give a damn, actually.
We had a knock on the door.
And I opened the door in my flat, and there was this black guy standing there.
Handsome, in uniform.
Oh, what a good-looking guy he was.
'Is Althea Gibson here?'
I said, 'Yes.
Come on in.
Are you a friend of hers?'
And it was an old relationship.
Well, they got cracking.
I gave them the bedroom.
I moved out.
And they were there for two days.
I was putting trays with food outside so they could eat, at least, in between.
She had a thoroughly good time.
♪ Bill Darben was the love of Althea's Life.
Her first husband.
TERRY: My Uncle William was always more of a quiet, intellectual type.
So I think, for her, it was kind of a respite away from being competitive and the more athletic type of pursuits.
It takes a special man to be able to be secondary in a relationship.
He not only had Althea, but he had her fans, he had the publicity.
And I think on a couple of occasions he was called 'Mr. Gibson.'
And he didn't appreciate it at all.
SMITH: She won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open both in '57 and '58.
Then she had to quit.
And she had to quit because she didn't have a job.
BUXTON: The bottom line was we lived in an era where there was no money in tennis.
Tennis was for all the genteel part of the society, of which she was not one.
SMITH: She had to stop playing tennis during that time, when she was clearly the best player in the world.
'You can't eat a crown, so I got to make a living.'
GIBSON:♪ Because of you, my life is now worthwhile♪ ♪ And I can smile ♪ Because of you ANNOUNCER: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.
Your Mercury dealer and your Lincoln dealer present 'The Ed Sullivan Show.'
[ Applause ] GIBSON:♪ Though life seems dreary and blue♪ ♪ You know there's someone who cares for you♪ ♪ Though the heart of man be gone♪ ♪ The soul will carry on MAN: Have you thought about turning professional?
GIBSON: Well, actually, I don't talk about professional tennis.
You know, it's a bad omen.
'Cause when you talk -- some people get the idea that when you talk about professional tennis, they feel that you might be a professional, or you might do this.
And so to avoid all of those criticisms, I don't talk about professional tennis.
KING: Particularly, men would either go be a contract pro and keep playing tennis and make money, or they'd go into some field of business, like finance, because they had good connections.
The old-boy network really helped them in.
We did not have that.
DELL: If Althea was playing today, she would probably be earning close to $10 million pretty easily.
If you flip it back into the '50s when she was playing, if she cleared $200 a week, she was doing great.
If she paid her coach, or if she had a friend or a husband or whoever that was traveling with her and she paid any of that, she lost money.
CARRINGTON: See, I got a saying that I heard a guy say, that the stream will always show the source.
And so she didn't go to school.
She was a street kid, and a lot of that street stayed in her spirit.
You know, 'cause she had people that liked her, they helped her get into Forest Hills and whatnot.
But I'd didn't never saw anywhere where, you know, just in the business sense, that she had any allies, anybody that came and said, 'Well, let's open an Althea Gibson restaurant.'
HAYLING: It was after the Globetrotter days that she wasn't able to make any money, and she was always trying to find some way to enhance her monetary situation.
And around 1960, when she started to play golf and got very good in a short time -- she could hit the ball a long way, could drive almost 300 yards.
Around the second or third year of playing, she came to me and asked me if I could help, you know, sponsor her.
Because she was having a hard time traveling in her car, going to tournaments.
The first tournament she played in, matter of fact, in Oklahoma, she couldn't use the women's dressing room.
she had to change in her car.
The year that we helped her, she did her best as far as money.
She never won any major tournaments.
She was runner-up once or twice.
CARRINGTON: We got good at a game that had social demands on it before we had met the social requirements.
Tennis had Althea moving faster than her social skills could keep up with.
If you were a good tennis player, you got invited.
First you got invited by the well-off blacks, and then you got invited by the whites.
And next thing you know, you're getting exposure and exposure, but it's taking you further and further and further out.
And then at some point, it snaps.
And you've left your home base.
Althea was a Virgo.
She was very self-critical, and very socially, you know, stand-offish.
And so her personality played a great part in her life, also.
You know, she wasn't a gregarious type person.
She didn't go out of her way to be social and to be -- you know what I mean?
And so if you could get to her and get to know her, you would see that you might like Althea.
But she wasn't gonna -- you know, she wasn't that easy to approach.
TERRY: There was some resentment that, you know, when she was in the limelight, people were clamoring after her, they wanted to hear from her, they wanted to see her.
And, you know, gradually, that died.
It meant a lot, and I think it hurt her feelings.
CARRINGTON: Althea was a champ in 1957 and '58.
And so, it was one thing for her to be African-American.
It was another thing for her -- you know, for any questions to be involved with her sexuality.
I don't want to be the one to say you know, how or what her sexual preferences were.
That's real, you know?
And I never hear anybody mention it.
I don't know how you could talk about Althea Gibson and not talk about the whole person without putting her down.
I have no judgment of it.
But this is -- why lie about who she was?
BUXTON: If anybody had the slightest suspicion that she was a lesbian just because she was an outsider, it's too ridiculous for words.
The were no husbands around, really, because once you got married, that was it, usually.
You hung your rackets up.
You know, the girls used to travel in twos.
Keep each other company.
She liked men.
She liked sex with men.
And that was the beginning and end of it.
CARRINGTON: I think that people neglect to really look at why Althea had such a rough time, you know, after her tennis life, after her golf life.
KING: Every woman athlete gets accused of being a lesbian.
Every single one.
Isn't that pathetic?
TERRY: I think she knew that no matter what she did, it was gonna come under scrutiny.
It was gonna be an object or a subject for people to, you know, make judgments on her.
CARRINGTON: This was something that quietly traveled behind her.
Aside from all of her blackness her this, that, and the other thing, if you put that with it, I guess you end up with a sad story.
As time went on, Althea got more and more depressed and more and more reclusive, until it just -- by the time you got to the '90s, she had dropped completely off the scene, and she was neglected by everybody.
[ Telephone ringing ] BUXTON: One Friday morning, I was cooking, preparing for the Sabbath meal.
My phone went in the living room, and I went to answer it, and it was Althea.
And she just phoned up to say goodbye.
And I said, 'So, where are you going to?'
So, she said, 'Well, Angie baby,' she said, 'I can't hang around any longer.'
She said, 'I haven't got any more money.
I've gone through all my savings.
Life really doesn't seem worth living.
So I'm just saying goodbye to all my friends.'
I said, 'I'll call you right back.
Don't go anywhere.'
After I called her back, I said, 'Now, why are you going to commit suicide?'
And then she told me that she had run out of money.
She had no money for the rent, and no money for food, and no money for medical.
She was living from hand to mouth all her life.
ALLEN: When she won one of her Wimbledon titles, the queen was there.
She said, you know, 'I got my trophy from the queen, and then I curtsied, and I backed away.'
And she said, 'Because you never turn your back on royalty.'
Althea was U.S. royalty in tennis, but the tennis world definitely turned their back on her.
TERRY: I think she felt that every time someone wanted something from her, they would, you know, call her, contact her.
But any other time, you know, she didn't hear anything.
It's only when they needed her.
And she, you know, got to the point where she didn't want to be used any more.
My uncle's personality was a little more passive, a little more laid-back.
And I think the limelight was not something that he really embraced like she could.
They ended up getting divorced, but they always kept a friendship, they always kept a love for each other.
BUXTON: She felt, I think, that Syd Llewellyn had done a lot for her in the past.
As far as I could make out, that's all there was to it.
They were just very good friends.
CARRINGTON: Sydney Llewellyn couldn't travel with Althea when she won Wimbledon.
One year, they paid for all the former champs and their spouses to come, so she married him so he could go as her spouse.
BUXTON: The love of her life was with Darben, because he came back into her life again at the very end.
He was living in a home, which happened to be near her home in South Orange.
And every day, they would meet at a diner for a meal, go for a walk, and so on.
And when he passed away, which he did before her, that's when she really went down fast.
MYERS: The only time, frankly, that I ever really saw Althea lose her temper -- really, she lost it out at the U.S. Open.
Each year, they had the champions come for a certain day.
Well, she had invited her doubles partner, Angie, from London, to lunch, and had made a reservation at Rackets, which is an exclusive restaurant within.
Althea go upstairs to take Angie to lunch, and she was turned away.
This is championship day, and you don't know who Althea Gibson is?
Her reaction was such that -- this is the final insult.
BUXTON: Nobody bothered to come to her rescue.
I think I was the last stop.
And I decided no way was she gonna commit suicide.
Not while I was around.
And I said to her, 'How much are we talking about?
How much money do you need to live?'
And she said $1,500 would about cover a month.
So I said, 'Okay, look, I'll send you that, and you just hold your horses.
And in meantime, I'll think of another way,' which I did.
This letter appeared in Tennis Week the week of July 18th, 1996, and signed by Paul Fein.
'I call upon tennis lovers and all men and women of good will and compassion to help Althea Gibson before it is too late.
Overcoming the racism and discrimination that confronted her, Althea Gibson became our sport's first black champion, and she always represented her country and her race and her sport with great dignity and pride.
Now she's financially destitute and dispirited.
She may not last much longer.
Very few people seem to care.
And our sport doesn't have a pension plan to help our former champions in needy times.
You can help avert a needless tragedy by sending her what you can.
Althea Gibson titled her poignant autobiography 'I Always Wanted to Be Somebody.'
She was and is a somebody.
Somebody very special.'
♪ Five months later, the phone rings.
And it's Althea.
'Angela, how are you?'
'I've just been down to my P.O. box,' she says.
And she says, 'I've had to have the manager open it.'
She said, 'The place is absolutely blocked.
And it's got money in it from all over the world in different currencies.
Is this to do with you?'
I said, 'Me? How could it be me?'
I said, 'I'm sitting here minding my own business in England.'
'Oh,' she said, 'it just smells of you somehow.'
She says, 'I thought it was you.'
I flew over the following week.
I went to Orange.
I helped open all the envelopes with her.
They were all different currencies and all different amounts from players who had remembered her and fans who had watched her and enjoyed watching her all over the world.
And it was well over $1 million.
ALLEN: In some people's houses, they have certain people's pictures.
Particularly in African-American houses, you'll think there's, like, a picture of Martin Luther King on the wall, maybe a picture of John F. Kennedy on the wall, a picture of Jesus Christ [Laughing] on the wall.
Well, and I can remember, growing up, on the top of our television set was an autographed picture of Althea.
TERRY: They're buried together.
Cremated remains are together in the same grave.
So, she did want to be buried beside him.
There's a plaque with his name on it, because she did not want to have any marker.
MOUTOUSSAMY-ASHE: There might have been some bitterness in Althea, in that she didn't necessarily feel she was given her due for what she did.
I have to remind people talking about Arthur being the first African-American to win Wimbledon.
And I was always quick to correct people.
'No, no, no, no, no.
He was the first African-American male.'
But people forget that Althea came first.
♪ n ♪ Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah ♪ Do it again and again and again♪ ♪ Yo, a story is statistics that chronicle beginnings♪ ♪ And endings and winnings ♪ The perils of makin' livings to swallowin' the feelings♪ ♪ The cringing, the crawling, singin', or ballin'♪ ♪ The blues is the muse when abused by the callin'♪ ♪ Play so loud, hauntin' it, flauntin' it♪ To learn more about Althea Gibson and other American Masters, visit pbs.org/americanmasters.
Or find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.
♪ And now we do it again 'Althea' is available on DVD.
To order, visit shopPBS.org or call 1-800-PLAY-PBS.
♪ Ain't no end in sight ♪ No waitin' for tomorrow ♪ We doin' it tonight ♪ In a quiet room, thoughts like a sonic boom♪ ♪ But we Sonic Youth, poison and toxic♪ ♪ After this, ain't nobody even asking you for permission♪ ♪ 'Cause you ain't the boss and not a single clue♪ ♪ Gotta do it...