In Her Shoes: Walking through Harlem in Althea Gibson's footsteps

ullstein bild/ullstein bild/Getty Images

In celebration of Women's History Month, espnW presents "In Her Shoes," a series of essays and features highlighting women, their journeys and perspectives on sports.

As a college girl, my time at the City College of New York meant that, day after day, to get to class, I walked up the hill to the broad sidewalks of Convent Avenue. In autumn, old-growth trees created a canopy of orange and gold, adding to the rich palette of the buildings: terra-cotta, Romanesque mansions; brownstones with stoops of the same color; and limestone-gray apartment houses. Past the gates of CCNY, many of the buildings are made of rock and have spooky underground tunnels.

I was captivated. This was Sugar Hill, where, back in the day around the time of the Harlem Renaissance, in the 1920s, the black hoi polloi stomped the grounds in elegant attire, living, as the legend goes, comfortably and sweetly. Not everyone on the Hill was that lucky, but there were enough who were. As a student at CCNY, I couldn't name names, but over time I learned the history. I know that 270 Convent Avenue, for example, a neoclassical apartment building of 11 floors, was home to many luminaries, such as George and Josephine Schuyler, the interracial couple whose daughter, Philippa, was a musical prodigy. I've since learned that there were dwellings all across Harlem that were home to the famous and infamous.

Along with the beautiful architecture and resident celebrities, Harlem had more than its share of sections that weren't so sweet, but were also home to prodigies. Althea Gibson was one of them. I learned of her in elementary school, during what was then Negro History Month. She was presented as one of our greats, which she truly was. And like many who achieve the upper echelons of fame and accomplishment, her beginnings were not easy. As a girl, her father, Dutch, primed her to contend with the world by teaching her how to box and beating her brutally, as one would a man. He wanted her to be a "lady boxer."

Gibson grew up on 143rd Street, between Lenox and Seventh. The family's tenement sat near the corner of a bleak stretch, on the south side of the street. This was not Sugar Hill; this was the Harlem Valley -- the section that was associated with poverty and overcrowded conditions. In 1940, the population of black people in Central Harlem was around 200,000, and they were crammed into an area approximately 45 blocks long and five blocks wide.

When Gibson came of age, West 143rd Street was a "play street." In today's Harlem, there are few left, but in the 1940s, when Gibson was a teen, there were many blocks closed to traffic during the day, so that city kids could rip and run and step up their game, whatever that game happened to be. She was good at many sports, including basketball, but, as providence would have it, the paddle-tennis net was right outside her front door. This is where she began to develop the physicality she would hone into international fame. All she had to do was step from the stoop into the street to take her place, paddle in hand. She slew any opponent who had the nerve to take a place opposite her.

Gibson's nascent, natural athleticism was so impressive that she captured the attention of the play street director, Buddy Walker, who was also a tenor sax player. He introduced her to the high-toned American Tennis Association -- the world of the black middle class. Their love of the sport inspired the ATA's founding in 1917 because black people were not allowed to compete with white players.

The ATA's circuit of upwardly mobile, black professionals realized Gibson's championship potential. They made sure that she received outstanding tennis instruction and an education. She ultimately graduated from Florida A&M University, but her initial dealings with blacks of a different social class and beliefs about public decorum made her feel like an outcast.


As an adult, I lived at 412 West 148th Street, between Convent and St. Nicholas Avenues. I loved to walk the neighborhood, and Convent became one of my favorite thoroughfares, both for the beauty of its architecture and for the storied people and places associated with it. During my wanderings over the years, as I passed certain places, I slowed my stride to linger, to go back in time in my mind's eye.

Number 441-443 was once the Cosmopolitan tennis club, where African-Americans who loved the sport and were good at it played. I imagine the players on the court, wearing their obligatory whites. But since I know my people, I am certain that the women, in particular, were dressed to be seen, decked out in the latest fashions of the day as they watched the matches. The club is gone. Now, on the corner of 149th Street and Convent there is a low, brick building that looks like it belongs somewhere in Flushing, Queens, but the tennis club was the place Buddy Walker took Gibson for her formal lessons with Frederick Johnson, a one-armed Jamaican, dressed in white, who sometimes wore a safari hat. A later coach, Sydney Llewellyn, not only taught her the technique required to rise to the demands of the game, he also shared his perspectives on the psychological aspects of tennis. He said, "You don't play the person, you just play the board as if you were a machine. Tennis looks genteel, but it's the meanest, most vicious game I know."

Perhaps Gibson's playing style and attitude toward the game were shaped by Llewelyn's sentiment, her father's pummeling and and her childhood as a street girl in Harlem. In her career, she won 100 professional titles, including the US Open, the French Open and Wimbledon, and described her dominating presence on the court as "aggressive, dynamic and mean."


Tennis must have been a spiritual and psychological respite for Gibson, and when a tennis-loving couple, Moulton and Rhoda Smith, let her move into their home at 415 West 154th, she had physical respite from her father as well.

The street rises up a slope, from St. Nicholas Avenue, and is landmarked because of its gorgeous mix of architecture that includes a set of row houses from 1884 built in the Queen Anne style. The fascinating mix of people, including Gibson, who have lived on the block means it could also be featured on someone's list of influential persons.

Marie Dutton Brown, veteran editor and literary agent, is one such individual. She said, "Before I lived here, I often walked through here from the 1 train, and I thought it was such a pretty block. I never thought I would wind up owning one of these grand buildings." The homes on her side of the street are wide, Victorian limestones with broad, curved stoops.

The literary history of West 154th Street also includes the fact that the head of G.P. Putnam, George H. Putnam, lived at No. 417.

When professor Dennis Derryck and his doctor wife, Joy Anderson, purchased 415 West 154th Street, the spacious row house had the extra space they desired for their burgeoning fine art collection. Derryck is also a tennis aficionado, so when he discovered a collection of photos and trophies that once belonged to Gibson, he said, "My responsibility as a black person was to give these things to the Schomburg [Center for Research in Black Culture]. This was 1992, and, for all of these years, the Schomburg remains the only place in Harlem to research the depth of all aspects of black history."

Gibson's room was beneath the steps. Derryck described it as "Dungeonlike, and no more than 180 square feet." Before he and his family moved in, the house was vacant for three years, but it was undisturbed. I get the sense that Gibson loved Harlem. In that regard we are kindred spirits, though of different eras. She lived here before so-called gentrification, at a time when all classes of black people lived in Harlem among one another. During her era, Harlem was known as the "Black Capital of the World."

She seemed to revel in this community's vitality and moved through all of its facets. From hanging in the pool hall with the cats, to roasting potatoes on the sidewalk in a milk crate, to swinging in the nightclubs, to hobnobbing with the ATA set, who saw her potential and helped to educate her, Althea Gibson was a daughter of Harlem.

Karen D. Taylor is the founder and executive director of "While We Are Still Here," a Harlem-based, heritage-preservation organization. She is working on a memoir about her life as an black woman of Southern and Barbadian heritage.