Champions for Equality On & Off the Tennis Courts

By Lisa Herndon, Communications & Publications Manager, Schomburg Center
August 25, 2021
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Tennis champions Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe made history in the US Open. In 1950, Gibson broke the color barrier. Ashe became the African American man to win the mens singles in 1968.

Game, set, match—and the Schomburg Center's collections!
The 2021 U.S. Open, the only Grand Slam tennis tournament in the United States, takes place August 30 to September 12 in Queens, New York. It’s a terrific time to learn more about tennis legends Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe. Both are part of the tournament’s history. Both also have items in the collections of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Consider making a research appointment to explore their materials.

Althea Gibson (1927-2003)

Althea Gibson made history in 1950 as the first Black person to play in the US Open. Photo: Roy Rochlin

Althea Gibson’s groundbreaking career helped pave the way for future U.S. Open winners of color such as Arthur Ashe, Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Sloane Stephens, and Naomi Osaka.
Born in South Carolina and raised in Harlem, Gibson lived on 143rd Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, a short distance from the Schomburg Center. She fell in love with the game while playing at Harlem River Tennis Courts.
Gibson made history in 1950 as the first Black person to play in the U.S. Open, then called the U.S. National Tennis Championships. She won her first Grand Slam title in 1956 at Roland-Garros, the French Open. The tennis champion made history again in 1957 as the first Black person to win at Wimbledon and the US Open. She won both Grand Slams again in 1958. Gibson won 11 Grand Slam titles during her tennis career.
In 1971, Gibson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
The United States Tennis Association (USTA) honored Althea Gibson’s life and legacy by placing a sculpture of her outside of its Arthur Ashe Stadium in 2019. It sits on the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

The Arts and Artifacts Division holds one of her uniforms, a tennis racket, and an inscribed Women’s Singles Championship trophy tray. The Schomburg Center featured the items in its 2019 exhibition, A Ballad for Harlem.

Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division has a copy of Gibson’s autobiography, I Always Wanted to be Somebody. Plus, read Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis From Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the Williams Sisters by Cecil Harris and Changing the Game: The Stories of Tennis Champions Alice Marble and Althea Gibsonby Sue Davidson for even more insight on the life, career, and legacy of the legendary player.

Arthur Ashe (1943-1993)

Tennis champion and activist Arthur Ashe used sports to speak out on racial inequality and raise awareness about AIDS.   

Arthur Ashe used sports to speak out against apartheid in South Africa and give back to the community to develop the next generation of tennis champions.
Ashe, who grew up in Richmond, Virginia, made history as the first U.S. Open’s mens singles  winner and the first African American man to win the title in 1968 after defeating Dutch player Tom Okker. (Prior to 1968 the US Open was called the U.S. National Championship and did not allow professional players to participate.)
In 1969, Ashe co-founded the USTA National Junior Tennis League, a program designed to develop tennis talent in lower-income urban areas. That same year Ashe applied for a visa to play in South Africa, which was denied. He applied again in 1970 and was rejected. Ashe used the incidents to speak out against apartheid in South Africa and Black people's struggle for freedom against its white-led minority government. Ashe called for the country to be expelled from the International Lawn Tennis Federation (ILTF) because of its racist policies, which resulted in South Africa’s two-year ban from playing in The Davis Cup tournament.
After consulting political and cultural leaders, Ashe played in South Africa after the country granted him a visa in 1973. And, in an agreement with the country’s tennis officials, tickets in previously segregated sections of the audience were distributed to nonwhites. Ashe continued speaking out against apartheid throughout his career and after he retired from the sport in 1980.  

In 1992, after learning editors at USA Today were looking into rumors about his health and possibly writing a story, Ashe held a press conference to announce he had AIDS. Ashe and his doctors believed he contracted HIV from a blood transfusion during a second double bypass surgery in 1983. Initially reluctant to publicly share his diagnosis, Ashe used the media attention to increase awareness about AIDS, raise money for research, and create the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS. He died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1993.
The USTA named its main stadium at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in his honor. The Arthur Ashe Stadium officially opened in 1997.

Resources:The Arthur Ashe Archive in the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division includes a manuscript and printed materials of Ashe’s trip to South Africa, plus letters, faxes, and telegrams documenting his political, business, and philanthropic activities.

The Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division has books on his life, activism, and career such as Arthur Ashe: A Life by Raymond Arsenault, Arthur Ashe by Ted Weissberg, and Arthur Ashe on Tennis: Strokes, Strategy, Traditions, Players, Psychology, and Wisdom by Ashe with Alexander McNab. Days of Grace: A Memoir, written by Ashe and Arnold Rampersad, is also available as an ebook through The New York Public Library.

The Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division has over 150 items in its collection. There are materials such as the 1990 documentary, A Hard Road to Glory, where former coaches and athletic directors discuss Ashe's rise to fame and career. Arthur Ashe Addresses a Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly covers his speech on World AIDS Day in 1992. Ashe sat down with interviewer Lynne Redgrave in 1992 and spoke about his struggles with AIDS in the video, Fighting Back, Arthur Ashe.

The Photographs and Prints Division holds the Arthur Ashe Portrait Collection. Images include shots of him playing in tennis matches in 1973 and 1976 and a group portrait with Ashe, Althea Gibson, and basketball player Earl “The Pearl" Monroe. Another picture of Ashe is with Gibson, tennis champion Zina Garrison, and tennis coach Sydney Llewellyn at Wimbledon in 1984.


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