Fresh off a trip to the US Open, One Love Tennis will carry the story of Wilmington icon Althea Gibson to Wimbledon

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Fresh off a visit to New York City for the US Open a few weeks ago, the Wilmington-based One Love Tennis program will close a month to remember when Executive Director Lenny Simpson heads across the pond for a stop at Wimbledon.

Simpson, along with filmmaker Rex Miller, will take “ALTHEA” to the All English Tennis Club for a private screening of the documentary centered on the life of Althea Gibson.  Miller is the film’s producer and director.

The 90-minute documentary reveals the highs and lows of Althea Gibson, the first African-American tennis player to cross the color line at Wimbledon (1957 and 1958) and the U.S. Nationals (1957-1958, precursor to the U.S. Open).

“I got interested in Althea’s story because of a photograph that hung on the wall of my childhood bedroom,” Miller said. “Taken in 1958, it shows two brown-skinned women, dressed in their tennis whites, holding tennis rackets and standing on the front lawn of the Merion Cricket Club, a prestigious tennis club outside of Philadelphia.”

Althea Gibson. Photo courtesy- US Tennis Association
Althea Gibson. Photo courtesy- US Tennis Association

“One woman was my mother, Millicent Miller. The other was Althea,” he said.

In 2014, Mayor Bill Saffo and city of Wilmington proclaimed the week that begins on the second Monday of September each year “Althea Gibson Tennis Week” to honor the legacy of the Wilmington sports icon.

The story of Gibson and her connection to Wilmington began in Harlem, New York, in 1946. The high school dropout and promising tennis player attracted the attention of two black tennis-playing doctors, Hubert Eaton of Wilmington, and Robert W. Johnson of Lynchburg, Virginia, who were active in the tennis community.

In 1950, three years after Jackie Robinson made his Major League Baseball debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Gibson became the first African-American to play in the U.S. Open. She integrated Wimbledon the next year and eventually went on to win back-to-back tournaments at the All-English Club and U.S. Open in 1957 and 1958.

Soon-to-be welterweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson and his wife, who had befriended Gibson, advised her to go south and she did. Each doctor took her into his family – Eaton during the school year, Johnson in the summer. Not only did they provide tennis instruction, they also straightened her out academically. She went back to high school and graduated in 1949 in Wilmington. She then continued to train here.

In 1950, three years after Jackie Robinson made his Major League Baseball debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Gibson became the first African-American to play in the U.S. Open. She integrated Wimbledon the next year and eventually went on to win back-to-back tournaments at the All-English Club and U.S. Open in 1957 and 1958.

On Sept. 22, Simpson and Miller will be honored guests to the famous site of Wimbledon. The Club, which only has 375 full members, is also hosting the duo  for a luncheon and tour after the screening.

Lenny Simpson.
Lenny Simpson.

Simpson’s story is personally and historically intertwined with the legacies of the barrier breaking tennis greats Gibson and Arthur Ashe.

In 1953, a 5-year old Simpson heard the tennis balls on Dr. Eaton’s tennis court nearby and was taken over by a neighbor, Nathaniel Jackson. Gibson happened to be practicing and coaxed him into playing.

“Changing lives in this community, as many changed my life by giving me the opportunity to succeed,” Simpson said. “The trip for the girls to the US Open was the trip of a lifetime, all expenses paid out of the generosity of the McLemore Family. Watching the girls as they watched and talked to the greatest players in the world, it was an incredible trip.”

Simpson played in two US Opens and set a long standing record as the youngest male to win a match at the national championships in 1964. He qualified and went to Wimbledon, but was sidelined by a pulled stomach muscle and never played the famous grass courts.

“It’s been an incredible summer and still much more to come even,” said Simpson. “We talked about some of the things we wanted to do with One Love Tennis when it first got started and now they have happened in a very short length of time. The Wilmington community has been great with support and helping us succeed because they believe in what we are doing for these at-risk young boys and girls.”

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