Althea Gibson Finally Gets Her Plaque at the U.S. Open

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I was lying in bed this morning reading a Sports Illustrated article about New Orleans two years after Hurricane Katrina. While many residents of the city have returned, most of the homes in the Lower Ninth Ward are gone and the poor, mostly black people who used to live there have not been able to return to New Orleans because the area still doesn’t have basic services such as power and running water.

When I was investigating the Duke rape case, a former Duke tennis player told me that the divide between Duke and the surrounding black community has gotten worse because the black community is struggling. Garment industry jobs have gone overseas and they’ve been replaced by biotechnology jobs which many people are not qualified for. The local Hispanic community is also prospering at a faster rate than the black community.

Today, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick entered a plea agreement for Federal charges stemming from his involvement with a dogfighting operation then gave an apology to the commissioner of the NFL, his team’s owner, his teammates, and the young kids that look up to him as a role model. This is not a racial issue but surely the black community is hurting for Vick, a superstar who signed the largest contract in NFL history.

It’s not the best of times for the black community in the U.S. but tonight at the U.S. Open there was a celebration of one of its pioneers: Althea Gibson, the Jackie Robinson of tennis and the first black tennis player to win a slam.

Fifty years ago she won the U.S. Open. She’d already won the French Open and Wimbledon and though Arthur Ashe came along a decade later and won his last slam in 1975, it would be another 25 years before a black player won a slam.

Venus Williams won Wimbledon in 2000 and it was only appropriate that Venus and her sister Serena played their opening round matches after Aretha Franklin belted out R-E-S-P-E-C-T in front of a gathering of pioneering black women that included tennis player Zina Garrison, astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison, U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun, and performer Roberta Flack.

During the ceremony, Gibson was posthumously inducted into the U.S. Open Court of Champions. Took ‘em long enough.

Venus and Serena won their matches in straight sets and Donald Young and Ahsha Rolle also won their matches. Venus and Serena have fourteen slam wins between them, James Blake is on a roll and Donald Young is starting to look promising again.

Things are looking good, it won’t take another 25 years before a black player wins a slam. Venus and Serena each have one themselves this year. Let’s hope they get their plaques before they pass away.

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