ALTHEA: Lessons on Breaking Barriers

“I am honored to have followed in such great footsteps. Her accomplishments set the stage for my success, and through players like myself and Serena and many others to come, her legacy will live on” -Venus Williams on Althea Gibson


In 1939, a 12 year old girl became New York City’s paddleball champion. Now that may not seem like a big deal, but it was. And if you’re a woman who loves movement and sport, then I believe you should know her name and her story. I believe you owe her a debt of gratitude. Because when a woman comes into her fullness, defying the odds, it creates a powerful effect. And that 12 year old girl, Althea Gibson, did just that. With her talent, grit, and strength she opened up opportunities for women, and people of color, by showing the world how a black woman could move with pure power and grace. She was a badass and she created a mighty ripple effect of badassery.


“No matter what accomplishments you achieve, somebody helped you.” -Althea Gibson


All movement is collaboration. And how we move through the world as women, whether we play small or take up more space and spread our wings, has a lot to do with what we’ve seen and what we’ve experienced. We all need sheroes so we can “see it to be it”. And we all need allies. We all need people who’ll say, “you got this and I got you”. 


Yes, we owe a debt of gratitude to the all the sheroes who came before us. All the badass women who blasted through barriers and cleared paths through the sheer force of their nature. We are blessed to follow in their wake. And each time we move outside the boxes of our comfort zones to explore our strength and learn more self-love and self-care, we honor them. And we strengthen our connection to our sheroes each time we show up to encourage and assist other women, and girls, to move past preconceived limits. Badassery begets more badassery and that’s a beautiful thing.


“We all have turning points in our lives and I had a huge one at the age of 13. I had the privilege of seeing Althea Gibson play. At 11 years old I wanted to be number one. And I’m a big believer that you have to see it to be it. I got to see Althea on the grandstand court and I got to see what it looked like to be number one. And I remember how inspired I was that day.” -Billie Jean King


Most people know about Billie Jean King. And if you don’t, seriously, it’s time to Google. She played some badass tennis. She’s also been a badass off the court as a relentless champion for women’s equality in sport and social justice. Thanks to Althea Gibson, Billie Jean King was able “see it to be it”. Althea Gibson’s performance on the court lit a fire in Billie Jean King. And King took that fire and ignited powerful collaborations with other women and allies to begin leveling the playing field for women and girls. 


Without King, and the other members of the “Original 9”, the Women’s Tennis Association wouldn’t exist. King also played a pivotal role in 1972 in the passage of Title IX. Title IX was a huge milestone for women’s sports. It blew a huge hole in the barrier of gender inequality and in doing so created countless opportunities for women, and girls, who love to move. Opportunities that had previously been denied. Yes, badassery begats more badassery, and it’s a beautiful thing. 


“If I made it, it's half because I was game enough to take a lot of punishment along the way and half because there were a lot of people who cared enough to help me.” -Althea Gibson

  

In 1950, at the age of 23, Althea Gibson stepped on the court at Forest Hills in New York to play in the US Nationals (the precursor to the US Open). When she did she became the first black player to do so. Gibson broke through the racist ceiling of US tennis through her hard work and her tenacity. But hard work alone didn’t get her there. She had assists from leaders in the black community and other allies. 


One of those allies was Alice Marble. Marble was a grand slam tennis champion. In 1950 she wrote an open letter to US Lawn Tennis Magazine that called out the institutional racism of tennis and the US Nationals. It basically said, and I’ll paraphrase,“WTF are you denying Althea the right to play because of the color of her skin?” 

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Althea narrowly lost in the second round of the US Nationals that year. She played in front of 2,000 spectators, some of whom were chanting, “Beat the n——r!”. In the US she was a second class citizen. Jim Crow was alive and well in the US. In many ways it still is. And if you don’t know about the history of Jim Crow, you should. Althea, like all great athletes, handled the punishment and intense demands of training and play. But her white counterparts never had to go up against segregation. They never had to experience the brutal pressures and bitter inequalities of racial hate.

But badass that she was, Althea stayed in the game. She went on to become the first African American to win a Grand Slam title in 1956 at the French Open. In 1957 she won Wimbledon becoming its first black champion. It was also the first time Queen Elizabeth II presented the trophy personally to the winner. Althea remarked on that experience, “Shaking hands with the Queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus.” Along with Wimbledon, Althea also won the US Nationals that year. In 1958 she repeated her wins at both Wimbledon and the US Nationals. All in all she won 11 Grand Slam titles. 

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But unlike tennis today, there was no real money or endorsement deals in tennis. Major tournaments were amateur. Althea was able to travel to play in Wimbledon, and other tournaments, in large part due to the generosity of the black community and other allies. But she couldn’t support herself playing tennis and as a result she quit. 

In 1964, at the age of 37, Althea took up golf. She became the first black woman to join the LPGA tour breaking through yet another racist ceiling. And while her sport changed the racist bullshit still remained. She received death threats and racial slurs from the galleries. And there were clubs that allowed her on the course but refused her entry into the clubhouse.


On the road she was often refused accommodations. Golfer Marlene Hagge (also one of the founders of the LPGA) became one of Althea’s allies. When she witnessed Gibson being turned away by a hotel desk clerk, she asked for a room and two keys and promptly, in front of the clerk, handed a key to Gibson and said, “You’re rooming with me.” And when host golf courses changed their "open" tournaments into "invitationals" in an attempt to keep Gibson from playing, LPGA leadership responded with, “We all play, or we all stay away.” Badassery in action.


“I believe that breaking those barriers was a huge step for us to get out and show what we can do," -Ginger Howard on Althea Gibson


And badassery begets more badassery. In 2016, for the first time in the 66 year history of the LPGA, four young black women golfers; Ginger Howard, Sadena Parks, Mariah Stackhouse, and Cheyenne Woods, competed at an LPGA event. To me it was a big deal that received very little attention.


“Althea might have been a real player of consequence had she started when she was young... she came along during a difficult time in golf, gained the support of a lot of people, and quietly made a difference.” -Judy Rankin


Althea was a badass. She made a difference in her own way and on her own terms. She was a shero. And as women who love to move and collaborate, we have a direct connection to her. And each time we show up to claim our power we honor her. And each time we show up to be an ally to another woman we represent. 


Many of us live a life of privilege. We move through life with a great deal of freedom. Freedom that other women, because of racism or other hateful ‘isms (sexism, classism, ableism, anti-semitism, ageism, heterosexism, and more) have limited access to. I believe that movement is a means to liberate body, mind, and spirit. And I also believe that the more women, and girls, who have opportunities to explore their strength and express themselves through movement, the freer we all become. 


So yes, you can consider this a call to action. A call to action to begin learning about the sheroes of movement on whose shoulders we stand. A call to action about learning how to be an ally. A call to action about having conversations about race and intersectionality that may be uncomfortable. A call to action to move outside of societal boxes that separate us. A call to action to collaborate and connect.