African-American tennis great Althea Gibson may have gained acclaim for breaking the color barrier in two different sports, but today she was honored as an inspiration for all -- regardless of race, gender or even athletic abilty.
“Without Althea there wouldn’t have been me,” said another woman tennis player famous for defying culturally imposed limits, Billie Jean King.
King, Gov. Chris Christie, members of the Gibson family and dozens of others gathered at Essex County’s Branch Brook Park today for the unveiling of a statue of Gibson, a South Carolina native and longtime county resident.
The winner of five Grand Slam tennis titles, it's scarcely possible to describe Gibson without using the word "first": first African-American named Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year, first African-American to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association, the first African-American to win both the Wimbledon and the US Open tennis championships.
The former state Commissioner of Athletics, Gibson -- who also lends her name to an award presented by Essex County every March as part of Women’s History Month observances -- lived in East Orange until her death in 2003 at the age of 76.
Her statue -- a cast bronze figure of Gibson at the top of her swing, resting on a granite pedestal -- was created by Oregon-based sculptor Jay Warren and stands a stone’s throw from a 20-court tennis complex also named in Gibson’s honor. The $75,000 statue was paid for with grants from PSEG and the state Green Acres program as well as with money from the county’s Open Space Trust Fund.
The idea behind the statue came from Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. who organized the event and also took part in the ceremony.
Speakers today said the statue is intended to be a symbol of Gibson’s living legacy and an ongoing source of inspiration for today’s youth.
“I’m not just here for the remembrance part. I’m here for the future part,” Christie said. “There’s too many things in life telling children what they can’t do. We need examples to tell them what they can do.”
“I want to draw a little more attention to these examples. Althea Gibson is a giant in New Jersey history,” he added.
Christie also acknowledged another trailblazer, King, who famously defeated male tennis player Bobby Riggs in a 1973 match that came to be known as the “Battle of the Sexes.” Christie recalled how, as a young teenage tennis player, he paid homage to King and asserted an older brother’s prerogative while going up against his younger sibling immediately after the Riggs contest.
“This might sound weird to you, but I made my brother be Bobby Riggs, and I was Billie Jean King,” Christie joked.
King, who along with comedian Bill Cosby has worked on behalf of the Althea Gibson Foundation, later cited Christie’s anecdote to make the point that Gibson can be a hero to anyone.
“It’s not just about sports, it’s about what’s possible...It’s not just about girls,” King said. “Living people who pass by the statue will be inspired to do what they love.”
Earlier, during a brief speech preceding the unveiling, King spoke about how Gibson served as a role model when King was a 13-year-old girl mastering her game on the courts of the Los Angeles Tennis Club in the 1950s.
“They didn’t even let people of color play in the US Nationals [the forerunner of the US Open] in 1950,” said King, who eventually befriended Gibson and spent time with her at her East Orange home shortly before her death. “For her to accomplish what she accomplished was extraordinary.”
Evidence of that “extraordinary” legacy could be seen on the faces of another group of guests today, the members of the girls track squad at Newark Tech High School. The girls belong to the first female track squad from a vocational high school to win a New Jersey state championship and were born decades after Gibson’s heyday on the courts.
“[Gibson] means a lot to me....she shows that anything’s possible if you work hard,” said 17-year-old Iana Amsterdam.