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The MatchAlthea Gibson and a Portrait of a Friendship
By Bruce Schoenfeld
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Bruce Schoenfeld
All right reserved.
Althea Gibson was born in South Carolina, but at three years old she was bundled off to Harlem to live with her aunt Sally, who sold bootleg whiskey. That's the story as she tells it in I Always Wanted to Be Somebody, and we have no reason to doubt it. Althea's memory fadeed by the end; she was said to be unable to recall the details of a single tennis match she played. "I don't remember everything I did, or when, or how," she said in a lucid moment not long before her death. But there is enough verifiable fact already on the record to get us where we need to go.
She was born in Silver, South Carolina, on August 25, 1927, to parents Daniel and Annie. She weighed eight pounds. She spent much her youth in Harlem with her younger brother and three sisters, and couple of years in Philadelphia -- most likely 1934 and 1935 -- with ht aunt Daisy. This was not unusual at the height of the Great Depression. Families dispatched their children to live with relatives who still had work, and food to eat.
In Harlem, beginning in about 1936, Althea lived at 135 West 143rd Street, between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, in what are now called the Frederick E. Samuel Apartments. The brick is red from a new coat paint, but in those days it was brown. Fire escapes run up the front the building, as they did when Althea lived there.
She and her friend Alma Irving would spend hours at the playground shooting baskets, or at the Apollo Theater watching movies. School was hardly a priority. Althea would go truant for days at a time. She'd ride the subway all night rather than head home and face the whipping she knew would follow. Her mother would walk the streets at two in the morning, calling Althea's name. Her father couldn't control her, even when he used his fists. At one point, she spent a night at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, on 105th Street, showing off welts on her back where her father had beaten her out of frustration. It wasn't his fault, she allowed; she just couldn't stay home. It wasn't drugs, or sex, or anything more serious than stealing fruit from the Bronx Terminal Market that kept her away. She had a restlessness in her soul.
Before the war, Harlem wasn't yet a slum. That happened later, when New York's outer boroughs opened up for blacks, and then suburbs, such as Mount Vernon in Westchester County, did. White flight from urban areas is well-chronicled, but plenty of blacks flew, too, the moment the cage door opened. Why wouldn't they leave the congestion of Harlem, the crumbling pavements, the rusted fire escapes where children would waste away steamy summer nights, if they could? Many of the wealthiest, the most successful, and the most creative abandoned Manhattan for, quite literally, greener pastures. Count Basic left for St. Albans, in Queens. Cab Calloway, too.
Harlem wasn't a slum in the 1930s and early 1940s, but it was a ghetto. It was insular, a world of its own. Like the Jewish ghettos of central Europe, it housed people of all economic strata. An entire sepiatoned cross-section of American life lived on the latticework of city blocks, from river to river, from about 110th Street up to 155th. There were millionaires on Sugar Hill and bums in the gutter. There were preachers and housepainters, small businessmen and card sharks. There were blacks up from the Caribbean and blacks from the American South, two wholly different categories of people that often regarded each other warily.
There's Joe Louis in a famous picture from 1935, striding down a Harlem sidewalk in a three-button camel's-hair coat, looking majestic. Down there on the left, wearing a leather jacket and high boots outside his blousing pants, is the young Desmond Margetson, who had connived to work his way to the front row of the assembled crowd as Louis walked past and the photographer snapped, and now is grinning for posterity like a madman. Margetson would later play tennis at New York University and, in 1954, partner with Althea in a doubles tournament at the Seventh Regiment Armory. It isn't merely coincidence that the same names emerge repeatedly at different points in this story. The world was smaller in those days, and exceptional people found a way to achieve -- or at least to catch a glimpse of Joe Louis if that's what they wanted. Margetson would surface again in 1957, when his engineer's mind conjured up the idea for the tennis bubble, which covered an outdoor court and enabled enthusiasts of all races to play in inclement weather.
Harlem had its own nightclubs, of course; those were famous. Whites came uptown to see acts at the Apollo. But it also had good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods, restaurants, clothing stores, an galleries, even soda fountains like Spreen's, where black kids would squander a nickel on an egg cream or chocolate soda, just as the white kids were doing on the Lower East Side and in Brooklyn Heights.
In those days, government organizations took an active role in urban life. Centralized solutions hadn't yet been discredited. The Police Athletic League was empowered to close entire city blocks to traffic. Each summer, it commandeered blocks all over Harlem and called them Play Streets. There weren't many playgrounds in Upper Manhattan and even fewer parks, so the pavement became stickball fields and hopscotch and paddleball courts. Fire hydrants were routinely opened to keep kids cool. The police, those benevolent peacekeepers, supplied all the equipment; all you had to do was show up. It was like summer camp, except that you could hear the mothers at their apartment windows, one after another calling their children in to dinner.
The PAL regularly closed off a portion of 143rd Street. Althea wandered by one day and began to play paddle tennis, which utilized a short wooden paddle and a rubber ball, like a Spaldeen ...
Excerpted from The Match by Bruce Schoenfeld Copyright © 2005 by Bruce Schoenfeld. Excerpted by permission.
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