Years after she had moved from her childhood apartment building of 135 West 143rd Street in the Harlem section of Manhattan, Althea Gibson often talked about how the address represents the start of her path to tennis glory.
As a 29-year-old in 1957, three days after she won her first Wimbledon singles championship, Gibson returned via police escort to a stretch of street outside the entrance to the walkup. Two large signs read, “Welcome Back Althea.” Inside in what is now called the Frederick E. Samuel Apartments, Gibson had been raised with four siblings in a five-room, third-floor rental unit.
The day after her return, the New York Times reported in a front-page story that Gibson had told a crowd of neighborhood children at the address, “My victory is your victory.”
The outdoor expanse had served as Gibson’s first court.
“It’s a long, long way from 143rd Street to Wimbledon, but you made it in a dignified way,” New York City Mayor Robert Wagner told Gibson two days later, during celebrations for tennis’ new queen that included a ticker-tape parade on Broadway and a reception at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in Midtown Manhattan.
Sixty three years ago this week at the West Side Tennis Club in the Forest Hills section of Queens, Gibson advanced the sport when she became the first black woman or man to win the singles championship at the Grand Slam tennis tournament that’s now known as the US Open. But it was paddle tennis at 135 West 143rd Street that would first earn Gibson neighborhood renown.
Outside the apartment building’s stoop, Gibson had picked up her first racquet at age 9 on a tennis paddle court. One block of street space there had become one of the city’s Play Streets, part of an initiative started by the city’s Police Athletic League in 1914 that closes designated streets to traffic so that children can enjoy more open play space.
I was very competitive in any of the sports that they had in that block, even down to shooting marbles on the manholes.”
Gibson had moved to Harlem with her family from her native South Carolina. In New York, Gibson’s father Daniel was a garage handyman and attendant. Her sister Millie said in 1957, “Althea was out in the street all the time. We used to have to drag her back into the house.”
At age 21 in 1949, three years after moving away from 143rd Street to live with tennis mentors, Gibson reached the quarterfinals of the National Indoor Tennis Championships, held at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. She was the first black player permitted to play in the event, as she was a year later at the United States Tennis Championships. The Queens tournament would become known as the US Open after it became “open” to amateur and professional players alike starting in 1968.
In 1958, the same year she defended her Wimbledon and Forest Hills crowns, Gibson turned professional and would later become the first black player on golf’s LPGA women’s professional circuit. She had declared that top tennis players should earn prize money at major events.
Gibson would see the US Open’s women’s singles champion payment increase from $20,000 in 1968 to $1 million in 2003, the year she died.
The winner of today’s Victoria Azarenka-Naomi Osaka US Open championship match will earn $3 million. Outside the match’s Arthur Ashe Stadium is a prominent permanent sculpture of Gibson, unveiled last year.
Gibson’s parents had learned of their daughter’s first Wimbledon championship when they were at 135 West 143rd Street. “We’re so proud of her, we don’t know what to say,” said Gibson’s mother Annie Gibson when reached by an Associated Press (AP) reporter the day of the Wimbledon triumph.
In the early 1960s, Annie and Daniel Gibson moved rom 143rd Street after Althea purchased a house from them on Long Island. Raising the future 1957 and 1958 AP Female Athlete of the Year had been a challenge. Althea often skipped school and curfew and was whipped by her father for disobedience.
“My parents were doing the best to raise me, but I wouldn’t let them,” recalled Gibson in a 1957 interview. “I just wanted to play, play, play. My mother would send me out with money for bread, and I’d be out from morning to dark — and not bring home the bread. I had fun, fun, fun!… And we’d sneak in the movies. If there was any poverty, I wasn’t aware of it. How could you think of it when you could get soda for five cents?”
When she took on tennis, Gibson’s life became more focused. She worked at a Chock full o’Nuts coffee shop in Lower Manhattan, as an elevator operator in Midtown Manhattan and a chicken cleaner on Long Island, and did button-factory and machine-mechanic jobs.
“Any time work interfered with tennis, she quit her job,” Time magazine reported in 1957. “Althea saw no need to be sociable. She had come to play tennis, and she had come to win. Anything less rasped her raw nerves. She avoided parties and other players; she spent all her time practicing and playing poker with the ballboys.”
In I Always Wanted to Be Somebody, her 1958 autobiography, Gibson wrote of the book title, “I guess that’s why I kept running away from home when I was a kid even though it took some terrible whippings for it… I was the wildest tomboy you ever saw.”
Gibson wrote of her father, “Even though when he got mad he got very mad, he was actually a patient man… If he had whipped me every day of my life from the time I was seven years old, I would have deserved it. I gave him a whole lot of trouble … I feel a lot of those whippings he gave me helped make me what I am today. Somebody had to knock a little sense into me, and it wasn’t easy.”
In 1957, when Gibson returned to 143rd Street, Daniel Gibson said of his daughter, “I felt good when she got to Forest Hills. She had a rough go, but she didn’t mind. I knew one day she’d come back. Things like this, all of them, bring the world closer together.”
For more original stories, sign up for the complimentary New York Sports Tours newsletter here.