TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Apr. 8) – A historic marker commemorating the groundbreaking career of tennis champion Althea Gibson was dedicated on Apr. 8 on the front lawn of the FAMU Tennis Complex. The event was attended by a diverse group of officials who came to pay tribute to the multiple grand slam event winner who developed her skills while on full scholarship at Florida A&M University.
An initiative of longtime FAMU tennis supporter Jerrell Lowery, the ceremony and dedication were endorsed by the university and the FAMU Department of Athletics. Additional support for the event was given by the FAMU National Alumni Association, The USTA, the Beta Alpha chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., the Rattler Boosters and several additional community groups. Former FAMU women’s tennis players Elysia Ortiz and Alexis Dean were a part of the exclusive program.
The historic marker, an initiative of Jerrell Lowery of the Venom Foundation, who supports the spread of the game of tennis and educational initiatives in the community, stands proudly facing Wannish Way on the front lawn of the FAMU Tennis Complex. It chronicles the impact of her career as a pioneer in women’s tennis and international race relations.
FAMU interim president Larry Robinson, Ph.D., offered greetings at the event. “This means a lot for the university, for athletics, for our alumni and for our rich history that we honor Althea Gibson with this plaque that will allow us an others to come past this place and recognize her greatness for years to come,” Robinson said.
On July 6, 1957, Gibson won the women’s tennis championship at Wimbledon. While that feat was celebrated, Gibson didn’t rest as later that day, she would be part of a duo that would win the doubles competition as well. She would go on to a stellar and groundbreaking career.
She was the first black woman to compete in the U.S. Open and won her first Grand Slam event in 1956, taking the title at the French Open. Her French Open title was the first ever won by a black athlete.
Gibson is often mentioned by current tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams. Venus was the first black woman to win Wimbledon since Gibson. Serena, has emerged into arguably the best women’s tennis athlete in the history of the sport. In an Instagram post in 2016, Serena posted a photo of Althea Gibson hold the winners plate, saying “Althea Gibson paved the way for all women of color in sport.” Williams also stated that she had proudly held the same plate that Gibson displays after winning her first championship.
Born in Silver, SC, Gibson’s family moved to New York where she was raised. The talented teen began to excel at tennis and was offered a full scholarship to Florida A&M University. Then FAMU athletic director Jake Gaither, challenged Gibson to realize her potential. With segregation the way of the land, Gibson did not compete against white players until she came to the South.
Those in attendance had emotional reactions to the day. “Just watching her and knowing what she did and what she stood for and knowing that with all of that there was orange and green…,” said the voice of the Marching “100,” Joe Bullard. Lt. Col. Gregory Clark, President of the FAMU National Alumni Association, was also pleased with the commemoration. “On behalf of the alumni association this is a great day. Certainly Ms. Gibson was a pioneer, she was an alumnus of this university and certainly all of her efforts and all of her accolades are well deserved. She made a difference throughout this world,” Clark said.
In a tribute to Gibson, Shelly Licorish, of the diversity division of the USTA, spoke of Gibsons engaging demeanor. She also read an essay written by a young tennis player, vowing for a scholarship. The essay was a tribute to Gibson’s talent and resolve.
Overton was also pleased at being a part of this historic day. “We had an excellent opportunity to honor Althea Gibson. The greatness of FAMU can be seen in its groundbreaking athletes that have gone on and impacted the world. We’ve seen some tremendous accomplishments from Venus and Serena Williams, and it warms my heart to hear them often mention Althea Gibson as the trailblazer for their careers. This is an amazing recognition of an amazing woman, who happened to make her way from right here…FLorida A&M University,” Overton said.