University of Wisconsin-Madison Assistant Professor Ashley Brown pens "Serving Herself: The Life and Times of Althea Gibson"
Ashley Brown is an Assistant Professor and the Allan H. Selig Chair in the History of Sport and Society at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is an expert on sport history, women's history, and African American history. Professor Brown has put more than a decade of research into her new book Serving Herself: The Life and Times of Althea Gibson (Oxford University Press).
The book is the most comprehensive biography of the tennis champion, set against the major historical developments of the 20th century and is based on previously unpublished archival sources, news media accounts , and oral histories.
Professor Brown joined SportsJam with Doug Doyle to talk about the biography that places Althea Gibson at the center of sports integration.
"It had been nearly 20 years since anyone had published a book about Althea Gibson. Shortly after she died in 2003, two books were published by journalists. Those books came out in 2004 and 2005. So much more material had become available since her passing. I wanted to put to rest a few of,about I think, myths and misunderstandings about Gibson. I wanted to give people a better understanding of Gibson herself and also the times in which she lived. I thought doing that would perhaps help people understand her perspective on the expectation that she would be a symbol, a representative of African Americans in her time. I also wanted to give readers a chance to learn more about the amateur tennis scene and what tennis was like before 1968 and the Open era. And how that particular moment, pre-1968, definitely influenced what Gibson said about certain matters, what she did, and how she lived her life and carried out her career."
Serving Herself sets up nicely the history surrounding the two-time Wimbledon and US Nationals champion. Before that in 1956, Gibson became the first African American to win a Grand Slam title. These major accomplishments all came against the backdrop of the Great Migration, Jim Crow racism, the integration of American Sports, the civil rights movement and second wave feminism.
Despite all the success on the tennis court, Gibson never made the kind of money that the star players she paved the way for, like Serena and Venus Williams and Coco Gauff have received. Gibson had little money when died in an East Orange, New Jersey hospital at the age of 76.
Professor Brown explains why the the star, who grew up on the streets of Harlem, was always facing financial challenges.
"It was difficult for her because she was the oldest in a family that had five kids. Especially in the 1950's, she talked a little bit about how she wanted to support them and help them. Just one of those ironies right? She was one of the most famous women in the world. When she ends her career she has a total of eleven Grand Slams across singles, doubles and mixed doubles, but she doesn't have any money. She also had a lot of pride, a lot of self-belief. It does get to you know when you realize the qualities, those traits in her, her hard work, they were very rarely rewarded monetarily. Through the 1970's she came back to pro tennis and even when she couldn't play, she still wanted people to remember who she was and what she did and that she was still available with ideas and skills that she wanted to share with others."
A bronze statue of Gibson was unveiled in Branch Brook Park in Newark in 2012. Finally, an Althea Gibson sculpture was unveiled on Day One of the 2019 US Open. The statue is comprised of five granite blocks and created by American sculptor Eric Goulder. It sits outside Arthur Ashe Stadium at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York. At the age of 23, Gibson became the first African American player to compete in the U.S. Nationals, the precursor to the U.S. Open, in 1950.
Some think says one of the stadiums at the complex should be named after Gibson. Professor Brown gave her thoughts on that during her appearance on SportsJam.
"That decision speaks to a few things. First of all, I guess it comes down to what the people at the time, in the early and mid-90's, what they sought to do, honor and recognize. At the same time, we have to think about history and the order of things. Gibson also opened the door for Arthur Ashe too. He did, at times, acknowledge that. I also want to acknowledge he was younger, of a different generation and he had his own trials and tribulations too. They shared a mentor Dr. Walter Robert Johnson. Some of the lessons and techniques that Dr. Johnson learned in supporting Althea Gibson, he applied those and adapted those in his mentorship and guidance of Arthur Ashe. One of the great things about recent history is that as we learned more about people, efforts have been made to recognize them. It's really wonderful that now there's the monument l that pays tribute to Althea Gibson. People can walk by. They can see it. They can see how she looked in 1950 when she made her debut there. Hopefully, that will inspire people to learn more about Gibson, perhaps even pick up my book and to learn the more complete full-scale story of her life."
Gibson was a natural athlete. At 5'11", she had incredible speed and tenacity on the court. She also excelled at other sports, including basketball and golf. At the age of 36, Althea Gibson made history after becoming the first African American golfer to earn status on the LPGA Tour.
Serving Herself contains a treasure full of wonderful photos of Gibson's career and finest moments on and off the court. They include her Wimbledon victories, her personal life and a few shots with fellow sports icon Jackie Robinson, who broke the color-barrier in Major League Baseball when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. One of Professor Brown's favorite photos in the book shows the two athletes on the golf course.
"Both of them loved golf. I'm really proud of the art programming in the book. I think we did a fabulous job on that. There's a photograph of the two of them together playing golf. It was his after sport. He definitely loved it. She was passionate about it too. There were a couple of times when they played golf together. That's actually a favorite thing for me to think about. These two sports legends, trailblazers, relaxing and enjoying some time out in the open air. Two people who probably needed some time to relax and let go. Just the idea of those two being able to do that together, that's a really special thought to me."
Professor Brown, who is also a fan of golf, also talked about the differences between Robinson and Gibson.
"Jackie Robinson, throughout his sports career probably even dating date to his time at UCLA, he always had this idea that he would do whatever he did, not just for himself, but the greater good of African Americans. Gibson was such an individualist. That wasn't on her mind. The fact that she was in an individual sport played a part in it. We also have to think the differences between their sports. African-American sportswriters were especially interested in this. The fact that Gibson was playing a sport that had these connotations of wealth and whiteness. Jackie Robinson, of course, was playing baseball which was considered a sport of the every man, something that everyone could do really without class restrictions."
Gibson would be heavily criticized by the media and the African American community because she didn't speak out openly about race and social justice matters early in career. Professor Brown says that started to change in the 1960's.
"She's having trouble facing discrimination in golf where she then reverts to talking a bit more openly about the issues that she faced in tennis and finally revealing there were clubs that wouldn't let her use the locker rooms in tennis."
Serving Herself gives readers a new perspective on why Gibson handled a number of issues she faced.
Althea Gibson also loved to sing. Even as a young girl growing up in Harlem, she dreamed of being a singer and briefly sang in the choir in her high school in North Carolina. She would get the opportunity to release an album, Althea Gibson Sings, in the late 1950's. She would receive praise from some critics and panned by others following her two singing performances on the Ed Sullivan Show.
You can SEE the entire SportsJam with Doug Doyle interview with author Ashley Brown here.