APPRECIATION: Althea Gibson, to Serve with Love
Garrison, Zina, The Crisis
Whenever I saw Althea. she always asked me if I was practicing my serve. It was one of those dreaded questions, like your grandmother asking you if you'd been eating your vegetables. You knew you should be doing it, you knew they asked only because they cared and you knew that you wouldn't hear the end of it if the answer was "no." I now understand what she was asking me. And my answer is a resounding, "yes."
For so long, I had the expectation of being the next Althea resting on my shoulders. I thought that expectation was to win titles and Grand Slam tournaments, as she did. Althea, a native of Silver, S.C., in 1950, was the first African American to compete in the national tennis championship, now the U.S. Open. A year later, she integrated Wimbledon and went on to become the first African American to win the French Open in 1956 and back-to-back U.S. Open and Wimbledon titles in 1957 and 1958. Eventually, Althea won a total of 11 Grand Slam titles. After retiring in 1958, she took up golf, becoming the first African American on the LPGA tour in 1962.
But I've realized over the years that the expectation was not to collect titles, but to fill her role as a trailblazer - as a woman in an industry that's dominated by men, as a woman of color in a sport that was predominantly White and most importantly, as a woman who keeps the dream of true parity alive.
Althea Gibson died Sept. 28 of respiratory failure in East Orange, N.J. She was 76.
I had visited her only days before, on Sept. 9. By having the good fortune of being able to stand on her strong, powerful, proud, vain shoulders, I've learned to understand pain and joy, the importance of passing the torch, the immensity of the doors she broke down for me - for female athletes, for women of color and for women, period. It's on those shoulders that the Williams sisters and I now stand, holding the doors open and pushing them to new limits.
And it's on those shoulders that I practice my serve daily - my service to the tennis community, my service to the Black community, my service to the world community. So thanks for asking, Althea; my serve is getting better.
- Zina Garrison is the second Black woman to reach the Wimbledon finals and founder of The Zina Garrison All Court Tennis Foundation in Houston.
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John M. Burgess, 94, the first Black to head a U.S. diocese, died Aug. 24 in Vineyard Haven, Mass. …