Althea Gibson#039;s legacy remembered

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 3, 2003

NEWARK, N.J. - Althea Gibson was eulogized Thursday as an inspiration to people of all races, on the court and off.

Former New York Mayor David Dinkins, a tennis enthusiast who played with Gibson, was among the several hundred mourners at a two-hour service at Trinity & St. Philip's Cathedral, an Episcopal church in downtown Newark.

''A lot of folks stood on the shoulders of Althea Gibson,'' Dinkins told the assembly. ''I'm not just talking about black folks, but many others who were inspired by what she achieved.''

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As the first black player to enter and win Wimbledon and a U.S. national championship, Gibson helped pave the way the way for later stars such as Arthur Ashe and Venus and Serena Williams.

Among those in attendance Thursday was 1990 Wimbledon finalist Zina Garrison.

''You broke down the doors for me and so many others,'' Garrison said. ''Althea, I love you.''

Gibson died of respiratory failure Sunday at a hospital in East Orange, where she had lived for many years. She was 76.

She won 11 Grand Slam titles, including five in singles: the French Open in 1956, and Wimbledon and the precursor to the U.S. Open in 1957 and 1958.

In 1963, Gibson became the first black player on the LPGA Tour, though she never won a tournament.

After retiring, Gibson took up a life of community service. In 1975, she was named New Jersey's first black woman athletic commissioner, and also served as an Essex County Parks commissioner, and recreation director in East Orange.

She and longtime friend Frances Clayton Gray co-founded the Althea Gibson Foundation, to provide educational opportunities to youth through tennis.

The president of the U.S. Tennis Association, Alan Schwartz, spoke Thursday about Alice Marble, a leading white player of Gibson's day. Marble lobbied to let Gibson play in the U.S. championships, writing a letter published in the July 1950 issue of American Lawn Tennis magazine.

''I think it's time we face a few facts,'' Schwartz read, quoting Marble's letter. ''If tennis is a game of ladies and gentlemen, it's time we acted in a gentle manner, not like sanctimonious hypocrites.''