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Inside the White Lines
Michael Bamberger
November 29, 1999
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November 29, 1999

Inside The White Lines


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A white man took a black woman's hand, two tennis champions at a summer dance. Few witnessed the event, and nobody wrote about it. All the champs did was perform a two-step and improve the world—or at least one timeless and beautiful spot in it. This was at Wimbledon, in the summer of '57, two months before nine black kids tried to enter Central High in Little Rock only to find a group of Arkansas National Guardsmen blocking the door, on the orders of the Arkansas governor, Orval E. Faubus. All the newsmen were camped out there in Little Rock. I'd have taken the dance instead. The Wimbledon men's champ in 1957 was Lew Hoad, a dashing Australian. The ladies' champ was Althea Gibson. Althea, the groundbreaker.

The 29-year-old Gibson knew the customs of the All England Club. She knew about the strawberries, the white-only tennis outfits, the proper protocol upon meeting the queen. For the fortnight of the tournament she was staying in the West End flat of a friend, Angela Buxton, a Jewess, as they said in London in those days. A year earlier, in '56, Buxton and Gibson had won the doubles title at Wimbledon. The Jewess and the colored girl, they were a curiosity, but most Britons were too polite to fuss over them much more than that. At the '57 tournament, though, Buxton was injured and unable to play. Instead, she designed Gibson's tennis outfits, all white, of course, which suited Gibson just fine, since white showed off her smooth, dark skin and her torch-singer good looks. The outfits were mostly shorts or divided skirts; she needed clothes in which she could move.

Gibson was one of the favorites at Wimbledon in 1957 The previous year she had won the French Open, her first major title. One is tempted to say that, at 29, she was at the peak of her powers, but it is hard to know. It wasn't until 1950, when she was 23, that the United States Lawn Tennis Association allowed Gibson to become the first black player to participate in the U.S. Championships at Forest Hills. She had spent her Harlem youth often riding the subways all night to avoid her drunken father's beatings and playing paddle tennis during the day on 143rd Street. She came to "proper" tennis late. A group of Harlem businessmen had paid Gibson's way to London.

It was a sound investment. Gibson made the net her personal property, overheads were automatic points, and she didn't lose a set. She played with an athleticism never before seen in women's tennis. She was Venus and Serena a generation before Papa Williams had his first tennis vision for his yet unborn daughters. In the semifinal Gibson trounced a popular English schoolgirl named Christine Truman 6-1, 6-1. The bursting Centre Court crowd cheered lustily for the loser, because she was English and because she was the underdog. In the evenings after her matches Gibson returned with Buxton to the flat, where Gibson relaxed with a string of cigarettes and whiskeys and slept practically until match time.

In the final, in 90� heat, Gibson defeated a Californian, Darlene Hard, 6-3, 6-2 in 50 minutes. Gibson "was the first representative of the Negro race ever to win a Wimbledon [singles] title," but, as SPORTS ILLUSTRATED reported at the time, the fans at Centre Court "raised only an apathetic cheer when the Queen presented her with a big gold salver and Darlene hugged her with sisterly enthusiasm." Gibson played a masculine game, and the English didn't know how to respond to it. For Americans, of course, winning is the thing, and she returned as a public icon, to a ticker-tape parade down Broadway. (Today, though, Gibson rarely talks publicly about her Wimbledon victory, or anything else.)

Only a couple of months after Gibson's Wimbledon victory, the forced integration of Central High in Arkansas turned into a violent, ugly spectacle. At the All England Club that summer, integration had come about naturally and cordially. During the Wimbledon Ball, after the two champions danced and before the final toast was raised, Gibson took the bandleader's microphone and sang, in her deep and sultry voice, I Can't Give You Anything but Love. She was now a member of the All England Club: An honorary membership comes with the singles title. She was, as far as anybody knows, the first black woman to be a member. Nobody cared. Or if people did, they pretended not to.

It is naive to think that you could write a story about two club members—both tennis champions, one black, the other white—sharing a dance and that such a story could influence the thinking of the likes of Orval E. Faubus. But I would love to have tried.

In the summer of '58 Gibson came back and won Wimbledon again, and in time the black kids in Little Rock walked through the front door at Central High, just like everybody else. Talent had won out again, and so, finally, had reason. In some immeasurable way, Miss Gibson must have helped us get there.