Althea Gibson stepped into the international spotlight as the first African American athlete to cross the color line in tennis, winning a Grand Slam singles in 1956. But, she honed her competitive skills for many years before that as a young player with the American Tennis Association.
In the documentary film “Althea,” screened in Greater Fort Lauderdale in August as a special event honoring the 100th anniversary of the ATA, founded in 1916, the stories are intertwined. The film chronicles the making of this pioneer and the impact of the country’s oldest Black sports organization on her, and on tennis nationally.
During the first week in August, Greater Fort Lauderdale once again welcomed more than 800 novices, amateur and aspiring professional players ages 8 to over 80, from around the country, as they converged on the area for the 99th National ATA Championships. They enjoyed summer family fun time with daily tournaments, youth and family clinics, and a gala ATA Honors Program and Black Tennis Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.
The national screening tour of “Althea” and an exhibit on the history of Blacks in tennis held in the intimacy of the African American Library and Cultural Center drew VIP patrons who represented a broad base of support for the historical significance of the ATA, a prospective permanent home for the organization in Miramar in the southern part of Broward County, and the organization’s outreach to Black youth.
Top names in Black tennis featured in the film such as legendary coach John Wilkerson, professional player Lori McNeil, and longtime ATA member Bob Davis shared memories of Gibson as a competitor or mentor. Other guests included the curator of sports for the Smithsonian Institution’s new African American Museum opening in September in Washington, D.C, and officers of historically Black fraternities and sororities and HBCUs.
Historically, the ATA has provided a social network as well as a training ground that opened the doors for countless Black players who went on to make their mark at the college and professional levels including Arthur Ashe, Zena Garrison, Chandra Rubin, Mal Washington, Leslie Allen and Kim Sands.
“We’re looking forward to being a part of the next 100 years of the ATA,” said Albert Tucker, Vice President for Multicultural Business Development for the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Having a permanent home in Greater Fort Lauderdale is a significant way for us to support the organization as it continues to preserve this important history that large numbers of visitors can enjoy.”