A Perfect Match (1956)
The color white is de rigeur for participants in Wimbledon; however, on a metaphorical level, the color is emblematic of the fact that for most of its history, the elite club has been a white Anglo Saxon enclave. A blow was fought against elitism when Angela Buxton became the first Jewish woman, and Althea Gibson became the first black woman, to play at Wimbledon.
In William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Trinculo states, “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” In the tennis world, a tale of two friends showed the truth of the Bard’s words. Although the women hailed from different worlds, their outsider status united them in a lifelong bond, and in the process, they lobbed a ball over the net of prejudice.
Angela’s family had fled the Russian pogroms at the turn of the century; in their adopted homeland, they anglicized Bakstansky to Buxton. She was born in Liverpool, England, in 1934; her father, Harry, started off as a cash-strapped street trader in Leeds who developed a gambling system that enabled him to purchase a string of cinemas. During the Blitz, he sent his wife, Violet, and their two children to South Africa while he remained behind to look after the business.
Under Apartheid, it was not long before Angela saw the face of anti-Semitism. Violet was in the common bathroom of their apartment building and was working on her hair. When a man became impatient waiting his turn he told her, “You Jews are all the same. You think you own the world!” Violet struck him twice with her brush.
Upon their return to England, Violet and Harry divorced, and Angela left for boarding school in North Wales. A junior tournament victory convinced Violet to concentrate on her daughter’s career. Angela transferred to a school in Hampstead for children with special talent; its headmistress put her in contact with London’s exclusive the Cumberland Club. When she asked Bill Blake, the club’s director, if she had not been offered a membership because she was not good enough, he responded, “We don’t take Jews here.” The next slight occurred when the Cumberland staged the Middlesex junior championships. The father of Angela’s chief competitor called to inform her they had disqualified Angela; Mrs. Buxton refused to accept the rejection, and her daughter beat her competitor and won the title. As she rose in the ranks, the other girls on the circuit gave her the cold shoulder. To offset the discrimination, Simon Marks, the Jewish owner of Marks & Spencer, allowed her to practice on his private tennis court.
Harry financed an extended trip to California so his daughter could further her training. A highlight of her stay occurred at a movie studio where she had her picture taken with Doris Day. In contrast, at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, she recalled, “After two weeks, and after my application for membership was accepted, they gave me my money back!” Once again, she had been ostracized due to anti-Semitism.
In 1955, the British government selected Angela to represent her country in a tennis exhibition in India. President Eisenhower also sent Althea to the same goodwill tour of the United States Lawn Tennis Association event and a life-long friendship began.
Born in 1927, Althea’s saga began in a sharecropper’s shack when her parents Daniel and Annie relocated from Silver, South Carolina, to Harlem, New York, in a bid to out-run Jim Crow. She struggled academically and often skipped school for bowling alleys and pool halls. Her father, a strict disciplinarian, beat her, and she ran away to a Catholic girls’ home, then lived in welfare apartments, taking menial jobs to survive. Buddy Walker, a musician, was so impressed by her athleticism he gave her two rackets from a second-hand store for $5.00 each and introduced her to Fred Johnson, the famed one-armed pro at the nearby Cosmopolitan Tennis Club. Sugar Ray Robinson also took the promising athlete under his wing; when she graduated high school, the boxer paid for her class ring. Although there were no actual rules against blacks in tennis, segregation existed through the barriers of money and social class. Nevertheless, she made a meteor rise in her sport, and in 1950, Althea participated in the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, Queens. Fans shouted from the stands for Althea’s opponent to, “Beat the nigger.” Gibson, the Jackie Robinson of her sport, achieved a number of firsts: the first black player to be ranked No. 1 in the world, the first African American to win a Grand Slam title, and the first black champion in Wimbledon in singles in 1957. She accepted the trophy from Queen Elizabeth II. In her autobiography, I Always Wanted to be Somebody, she wrote, “Shaking hands with the Queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus.” The star appeared on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time, the first black woman to be so honored. Gibson had vanquished the odds against her race, gender, and class. Footage depicts a beaming Althea seated in a convertible during her ticker tape parade on Broadway in Manhattan as fans lined the streets to cheer.
In India, during the 1956 French Open, Angela noticed Althea sitting on the sidelines and thought to herself, “What the hell is she sitting there for? One of the best players in the world and she wasn’t chosen.” The pair took to one another; Buxton was dawn to Gibson’s dry sense of humor and admired her fine singing voice (she later became the only Wimbledon champion to sing at the Wimbledon Ball.) They likewise bonded over a shared love of movies, and when in Manchester, Gibson sometimes watched three films a day at the Buxton owned cinemas. Althea called her friend Angie Baby.
The pair won the 1955 French doubles title, and when Buxton reached the Wimbledon singles final, the first Brit to do so in seventeen years, Violet decided to attend its Ball to see her daughter dancing. However, when Mrs. Buxton went to obtain her ticket, a lady informed her there were no tickets left. Violet drew herself up to her full 5 ft 2 inches and stated that if that were the case, her daughter would be home with her and unable to compete at the scheduled event. The ticket was forthcoming. After their historic doubles win at Wimbledon, a brave British newspaper headlined, “Minorities Win.”
Their professional partnership came to an abrupt end when Buxton injured her wrist at a 1956 tournament in New Jersey. Undaunted, she went on to win the Maccabiah title in 1957 but soon after retired. Her post-tennis life was fulfilling as she became a coach, started the Buxton Tennis center in north London, and volunteered on a kibbutz during the Six-Day War. Asked why she went to Israel during a danger fraught time, she explained her husband was Donald Silk, the president of the Zionist organization of Great Britain and Ireland. She took along her three children, ages six, four, and eighteen months, to volunteer on Kibbutz Amiad and assisted in the dining room, the orchards, and the laundry room. Despite her divorce, her allegiance to Israel remained, and she became one of the six founders of the Israel Tennis Centers. In 1981, the Jewish Sports Hall of fame made her a member. The active, forever-on-the-go Buxton splits her time between England and Florida and is a proud great-grandmother. She is grateful for her storied career but remains irked that although she had applied for membership in the All England Lawn Tennis Club in 1958, she is still awaiting a reply. She finds this affront offensive as she had reached the singles quarterfinals of the French Open and the finals of Wimbledon. The Fates did not weave such a kind pattern for her former partner.
It was nothing short of a miracle that a daughter of Harlem broke tennis’ color barrier three years after major league baseball had begun to be integrated as tennis, with its added hurtles of money and class, proved more resistant to change. However, as a Wimbledon winner, Gibson appeared at the All-England Club’s 1984 women’s centenary. And, in the early 1990s, spectators saw her alone, regal, sitting in the champion’s box during the U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows. Her aloof personality did not endear her to others, but her attitude was one of self-defense, a way of shielding herself from the plantation mentality that permeated the time’s tennis world. She played on the lawn of Wimbledon and Forest Hills, but it turned into a dual-edged miracle. In the era before corporate sponsors and product endorsement deals, Gibson’s triumphs did not translate into financial security. To generate income, she recorded a record album and played a slave in John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers. She also signed a contract with the Harlem Globetrotters to play exhibition tennis during half-time breaks. From 1963, she became the first African American woman to participate on the Ladies PGA golf circuit. One of her supporters was Billie jean King, a promoter of her sport’s illustrious foremothers; King and her then husband, Larry, invited the 41-year-old Althea to play in a pro event. In her later years, she went into a decline and subsisted on social security benefits. Her travails provided a poignant twist to the closing paragraph of her autobiography, “I’m Althea Gibson, tennis champion. I hope it makes me happy.”
As Althea sat in a small apartment in New Jersey, she saw the largest tennis stadium in the country named after Arthur Ashe; she watched as baseball retired Jackie Robinson’s number in his honor. She grew bitter as history consigned her to a forgotten footnote. The indomitable spirit that had led her to overcome penury and the country- club crowd still survived, and she did not want the world to see her old and feeble. Nevertheless, she made an exception for Angie baby. Her British chum put her in touch with Venus Williams, then an up and coming phenomenon. In a phone call, Althea counseled the younger woman before her first U.S. Open final, “Be who you are and let your racket do the talking.”
In 1995, Angela was in her kitchen cooking onions when she received a call from the 67- year- old Althea. Gibson had suffered several strokes and was living in East Orange, New Jersey. Her old friend said, “Angie baby, I can’t last much longer. I’m going to commit suicide. I’ve got no money, I’m very ill, I’ve got no medication...” Buxton sent her money and placed an ad in Tennis Week asking for contributions. Those who remembered Gibson’s glory days sent cash; Althea pulled out of her slump and with the windfall bought a silver Cadillac convertible.
In 2003, Althea passed away at age 76. It could not have been easy to be a Robinson, an Ashe, or a Gibson, who blazed a path for others at a considerable cost to themselves. Althea, in a white tennis outfit, in a white world, shone.
To celebrate the five-time grand-slam winner, the U.S. Postal service issued a stamp that showcases Gibson whose lean, 5’ eleven” body posed to deliver a low volley. Similarly, the U.S. Tennis Association erected a granite statue to immortalize the tennis great in the US Open. At its unveiling, they also recognized the then 85-year-old Buxton who, wearing a pearl choker, addressed the crowd from her wheelchair. Together, Angie and Althea had proved a perfect match.