Mary Drayton was a wide-eyed 8-year-old sitting next to her aunt, tennis great Althea Gibson, as she was showered with ticker tape in the Canyon of Heroes in Lower Manhattan. Thousands lined the parade route that day to celebrate Gibson’s history-making accomplishment as the first African-American to win a Wimbledon title.
That was 55 years ago.
Wednesday, the crowd that gathered in Newark to celebrate the unveiling of a bronze statue honoring Gibson was considerably smaller. Huddled under a tent in Branch Brook Park to avoid a sudden afternoon rain shower, were about 150 people, including Gov. Chris Christie and other state and local officials, as well as tennis legend Billie Jean King.
Not far from the statue is the Althea Gibson Tennis Court Complex, which is undergoing a $750,000 renovation, according to Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo.
Christie called Gibson an “inspiration for the future” but it was more than a half-century ago when the tall, athletic woman shattered barriers and set records. In the span of just two years, Gibson won five major singles titles, including two Wimbledons and two U.S. Opens, and appeared on the covers of Time magazine and Sports Illustrated.
Her singles victory at the French Open in 1956 marked the first time an African-American had won a Grand Slam title. And the next year, after her historic run at Wimbledon, she did it again at the U.S. Open — 11 years before Arthur Ashe became the first black man to win the Open singles title. For two years, 1957 and 1958, Gibson was the No. 1 player in the world.
“For her to accomplish what she had accomplished is extraordinary — extraordinary — and I don’t think people understand how important it is to recognize it,” said King, a winner of 12 Grand Slam singles titles.
But despite soaring success during her tennis career, Gibson later lived in obscurity in East Orange, shunning the public limelight and struggling with depression. For a few years, her only steady income was a $7,000-a-year part-time job as state athletic commissioner for boxing and wrestling.
In 2003, at age 76, Gibson died virtually penniless, according to close friends. She was buried at Rosedale Cemetery in Orange.
Wednesday, however, many chose to remember — and honor — Gibson for her larger legacy.
“Althea participated in the civil rights movement with her tennis racquet,” said Frances Gray, Gibson’s friend, former caretaker and the co-founder of the Althea Gibson Foundation. “Everything on the tennis court was white — including the ball — certainly the person in front of her.”
“Althea Gibson was one of those special people whose hard work brought her personal success, but her perseverance also changed our lives for the better,” DiVincenzo said.
Born in South Carolina, Gibson grew up in Harlem where, in 1941, she applied her natural athletic ability to tennis lessons.
But before tennis, she learned to play paddleball with the kids on her block, said Drayton, 62, who lives in Petersburg, Va., but grew up in Harlem near Gibson’s family. Drayton recalled her aunt as a “tomboy” who excelled at all sports — basketball, golf and even bowling.
“She was a strong person to us,” said Drayton, as she stood near the life-like bronze statue of her aunt, depicted in her prime. Sitting atop a granite pedestal, Gibson is holding a racquet and appears to be swinging through a backhand shot, eyes on the follow-through.
“I want the public to remember me as they knew me — athletic, smart and healthy,” Gibson once said, in a quote that was read at Wednesday’s event. “Remember me strong and tough and quick. Fleet of foot and tenacious.”