10 years after her death, Wilmington remembers Althea Gibson

CorrespondentSeptember 27, 2013 

This is another in a series of stories about African-American athletes with North Carolina connections.

Former tennis pro Lenward Simpson first met fellow Wilmington resident Althea Gibson at the home of Dr. Hubert Eaton, a successful local businessman and physician whose immaculate tennis court served as the training grounds for dozens of the city’s African-American youths who wanted to learn what had always been an elite, white-dominated sport.

It was then, in the mid-1950s, that Simpson, still an elementary schooler, stood beside Gibson as she taught him the finer points of the sport.

“She was my mentor and coach,” Simpson said. “I watched her every single day of my life when I started playing. That’s how I started. I watched her and played every single day. She was standing right next to me, telling me what to do.”

It was around that time that Gibson became the first African-American to win major singles titles, the French Open in 1956 and both Wimbledon and the U.S. championships (in 1957 and 1958). Gibson broke ground that allowed such other tennis greats as Arthur Ashe, Yannick Noah and Venus and Serena Williams to reach the pinnacle of the tennis world.

Steve Flink, a longtime tennis journalist who has worked closely with the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., said Gibson, who died 10 years ago Saturday at the age of 76, altered the course of tennis history.

“Althea Gibson's contribution to the history of tennis was immense, to say the least,” Flink said. “She broke down some substantial racial barriers with her success. Arthur (Ashe) said many times that Althea made his quest much easier by virtue of her success. The bottom line is this: Althea Gibson was a pioneer, and she established herself unequivocally as one of the most significant female athletes of all time.”

In a city that has produced its fair share of sports legends, Gibson stands out among them all, said Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo.

“Wilmington has produced many great sports figures – Sonny Jurgenson, Meadowlark Lemon, Roman Gabriel and Michael Jordan, to name a few,” Saffo said. “And yet Althea Gibson was the first female athlete from the area to gain worldwide attention.”

Gibson was born in South Carolina in 1927 but moved to New York City with her family as a youngster. She started playing tennis on the courts of Harlem, and by her mid-teens she was winning prestigious regional tournaments.

It was enough to catch the attention of Eaton, Dr. Walter Johnson and a cadre of other influential African-American community leaders who were trying to nurture the sport among talented black youth.

Gibson moved to Wilmington as a teen, where her raw talent would develop under Eaton’s watchful eye until she emerged as the focused, dominant, graceful player she was to become.

“I was lucky to have men like my two doctors looking out for me,” Gibson wrote about her time in Wilmington in her 1958 autobiography, “I Always Wanted to Be Somebody.”

“Not only because they were doing so much for me in a material way, but because they were such high-type men.”

A decade after her death, Wilmington continues to honor Gibson.

“We have an entire tennis facility named in her honor so that future generations may remember her,” the mayor said.

But Lenward Simpson, himself a member of the North Carolina Tennis and Wilmington Sports halls of fame, said local knowledge of Gibson’s legacy is mixed. While he lauded the existence and training efforts of the tennis complex named after her, he isn’t sure the average Wilmington resident realizes what she did.

“Do people here know her? No,” Simpson said. “Does the community properly honor her? No. But I was so proud of the city when it honored this great champion that was raised here.”

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