This documentary details the life of Althea Gibson, the first African American to win The French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open (formerly called the U.S. Nationals). Althea Gibson’s first Grand Slam win was in 1956 at the French Championships (now the French Open) where she became the first person of color to win a Grand Slam title. She won the Wimbledon Women’s singles title in 1957 and 1958. She won the U.S. Open Women’s singles title in 1957 and 1958.
American Masters presents Althea, premiering nationwide Friday, September 4, 2015 at 9 p.m. during the U.S. Open. The 90-minute documentary reveals the highs and lows of this remarkable athlete whose life and achievements transcend sports and have entered the annals of African American history. From her roots as a sharecropper’s daughter in the cotton fields of South Carolina, to her emergence as the unlikely queen of the highly segregated tennis world in the 1950s, her story is a complex tale of race, class and gender.
In recounting Gibson’s story, the filmmakers were meticulous in finding period imagery, including over 450 vintage photographs. Producer and director Rex Miller weaves this archival visual material and interviews with those who knew Gibson, such as former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, Wimbledon champions Dick Savitt and Billie Jean King (who also serves as one of the film’s executive producers), Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, widow of Arthur Ashe, and more.
People often cite Arthur Ashe as the first African American to win Wimbledon (1975). He was indeed the first African American male to win the men’s singles title, but it was, in fact, Althea Gibson, who was the first African American to cross the color line playing and winning at Wimbledon (1957 and 1958) and at the U.S. Nationals (1957 and 1958 – precursor of the U.S. Open).
Gibson was born in Silver, South Carolina on August 25, 1927. At the age of three, her father moved the family north migrating to Harlem in 1930. Gibson was a tomboy who grew up loving sports, but disliked school so much that she started skipping classes at the age of 12 and, by 18, had dropped out of high school. She played basketball, but “…paddle tennis started it all,” says Gibson, in a clip from a 1984 interview.
She learned to play that sport on the streets, but it was bandleader Buddy Walker, who was also the neighborhood play street director, who introduced her to tennis and The Cosmopolitan Club, a private black tennis club. At the club, she met Fred Johnson, the one-armed coach, who taught her how to play. Under the auspices of the American Tennis Association (ATA), an organization of African American players, she began to develop as a tennis player. It was during this time that she met boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, who would become a friend and mentor.
American Masters: Althea airs tonight (September 4) at 9:00pm EST on your local PBS channel.
Check out the following links for additional information about Althea Gibson: