From left: North Atlantic Regional Director of Alpha Kappa Alpha Inc. Constance R. Pizarro, NJ State Senator Teresa Ruiz, Freeholder Carol Clark, Freeholder President Blonnie Watson, Newark Postmaster Michael Deignan, Freeholder Vice President Patricia Sebold, Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr. and former Governor Brendan Byrne Credits: Glen Frieson
Essex County Tennis Star Althea Gibson Commemorated with US Postal Stamp
Tuesday, August 27, 2013 • 1:23am
NEWARK, NJ - On Saturday, former Governor Brendan Byrne was on hand to honor East Orange tennis legend and civil rights pioneer Althea Gibson (1927–2003) at the United States Postal Service’s First-Day-of-Issue Ceremony in Essex County Branch Brook Park. Newark Postmaster Michael Deignan, along with Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr. gathered a full crowd at the Althea Gibson tennis court complex to unveil the “Althea Gibson Forever” stamp, the 36th in the postal service’s Black Heritage Series.
Credit: Glen Frieson
In 1950 at the age of 23, Gibson was the first African American player - male or female - to be invited to compete in the US National Championships at Forest Hills, NY (now the US Open) and the following year was the first black player to ever play at Wimbledon. She continued making waves in 1956 when she was also the first person of color to succeed in international tennis when she won the French Open’s Grand Slam singles and doubles titles.
Credit: Fred Palumbo, New York World-Telegram
In 1957, Gibson won both the singles and doubles tournament at Wimbledon (where she was the first person to ever receive a trophy directly from Queen Elizabeth II) as well as the US Championships. In her honor, New York City held a ticker tape parade for her; the occasion marked only the second time an African American had been similarly feted, after Jesse Owens. "Shaking hands with the queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus,” Gibson was quoted as saying. The tennis star went on that year to also succeed at the Australian doubles championships. She was the number one tennis female player that year and the next, regardless of race, and was voted Female Athlete of the Year by the Associate Press.
The tennis star was described as being “tall, lean, fast and having a long reach” while delivering a “booming serve and precise volleys.” In 1958, Gibson defended her previous year’s titles at Wimbledon and the US National. She also became the first African American woman to ever appear on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time.
Credit: Time Magazine, Sports Illustrated Magazine
By late 1958, Gibson had won 56 national and international singles and doubles titles, including 11 Grand Slam championships and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame.
After retiring from amateur tennis in 1958, Gibson briefly pursued a singing career and even performed on the Ed Sullivan show. She rejoined her athletic roots when, in 1964, she became the first black player to compete on the women's professional golf tour. Many country clubs throughout America, however, refused to allow her to play on their courses because of her skin color. She retired from golf in 1978.
Essex County and New Jersey Service
Gibson became the Essex County Parks Commission Director of Women Sports and Recreation in the early 1970s. She ultimately went on to manage the Department of Recreation in East Orange. She became the supervisor of the Governor's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports and served on the State’s Athletic Control Board. The county erected a life-size bronze statue of Gibson in 2012 adjacent to the 20-court tennis complex named for the athlete.
Former governor Byrne attended Saturday's ceremony in part because in 1976 he had hired Gibson as his NJ State Athletic Commissioner, a position she held for ten years. At that time, Gibson was the very first woman in the country to hold this role.
"Althea Gibson played tennis for the love of the game," Byrne commented, "and it’s important to remember that there are people like that. It’s a privilege for me to be here to honor Althea with this stamp.”
Former Governor Brendan Byrne Credit: Glen Frieson
Althea Gibson Forever Stamp
Designed by US Postal Service Art Director Derry Noyes and award-winning American artist Kadir Nelson, the stamps features an oil-on-wood painting based on a photograph taken at Wimbledon of Gibson bending down to hit a low volley. The stamp is issued in self-adhesive sheets of 20 and is called a “Forever Stamp” because it will always be equal in value to the current First-Class Mail one-ounce rate.
Credit: US Postal Service
When addressing the group, DiVincenzo remarked, “Althea Gibson, an East Orange resident, was a tennis stand-out and civil rights pioneer who blazed the trail for women and minorities. We are proud to partner with the United States Postal Service as they honor her with the 36th stamp in their Black Heritage Series.”
“We did this to recognize her achievement and ensure that future generations are inspired by her dedication to activism and mentoring of young people,” DiVincenzo added. “It is fitting that one of the Postal Service’s first-day-of-issue ceremonies is taking place right here in Essex, alongside her statue.”
Freeholder President Blonnie Watson stated that she had worked in the postal service for 45 years and was proud to witness a stamp issued “for one of our own from Essex County.” Newark Postmaster Michael Deignan said, “Althea Gibson taught us the lesson that talent is colorblind.”
Later in life, Gibson organized tennis clinics for children at the tennis courts in Branch Brook Park. She passed away at the age of 76 on Sept. 28, 2003, in East Orange. The tennis complex in Branch Brook Park was dedicated in her honor in 2002 and her bronze statue was unveiled in 2012. Essex County also honors the memory of Gibson every March when it presents the Essex County Althea Gibson Leadership Awards during the Annual Essex County Women’s History Month Celebration.
Children enjoying the Althea Gibson tennis courts Credit: Glen Frieson