The U.S. Postal Service on Friday served up its highest honor for Palmetto State native daughter and groundbreaking professional tennis champion Althea Gibson.
With dozens of Gibson’s family members looking on, it unveiled its 36th Black Heritage commemorative stamp honoring the luminary from the small community of Silver in Clarendon County.
Born in 1927 to sharecropping parents in the rural county, Gibson defied the ubiquitous grip of racial segregation synonymous with the state at that time and broke into what was considered a white sport.
Though Gibson never picked up a tennis racket before age 14, she earned 35 major tennis titles and in 1956 became the first African-American to win a grand slam tournament with her victory at the French Open.
Gibson then went on to win both the U.S. Open tennis tournament and Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958, a feat that stood in her sport for 43 years and earned her the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year both years. Gibson died a decade ago at 76.
During the ceremony Friday at the State Museum, organizers showed a video clip of Gibson receiving the Wimbledon trophy from England’s Queen Elizabeth.
“When you see somebody of that caliber rise up, break those barriers (of segregation) in that time frame, you recognize that,” said Al Marshall, U.S. Tennis Association president, South Carolina.
“Now, taking that and putting it on a stamp, those stamps are going to be in thousands of kids’ little stamp collections. They may not know who she is, but they’ll ask the question, and they’ll go to the library, or nowadays, they’ll go to the Internet and look her up.”
After Gibson retired from tennis in 1958, she went on to become the first African-American to receive a Ladies Professional Golf Association card in 1964.
The two-week U.S. Open tennis tournament continues this week in Flushing, N.Y., where Gibson was honored last week with the initial unveiling of the stamp.
“It’s such a major honor for her to receive this recognition, because we’re talking about from 1957 to 1958, this major daughter of South Carolina who won all of these major grand slam championships,” said Elaine Nichols, who served as history curator at the State Museum from 1987 to 2009.
“Growing up, she was my hero,” said Nichols, who now is senior curator for culture at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and flew to Columbia for the ceremony. “This is long overdue.”
Gibson graced the covers of Time magazine in August 1957 and Sports Illustrated in September 1957.
She has family in South Carolina in Richland, Clarendon and Florence counties, and in New Jersey and Virginia, who came to Columbia for the unveiling.
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn and others put Gibson’s name in a pantheon of other greats who made significant strides in their times against long odds, some from South Carolina, such as Modjeska Simkins and Matthew Perry.
“The name Althea Gibson is more than just a name – it’s an idea,” said Harry Spratlin, U.S. Postal Service district communications coordinator in Columbia. “It’s an idea that means something to people all around the world.”
Spratlin said that like Teddy Roosevelt, Babe Ruth or Barack Obama, Althea Gibson is an unmistakable entity on the world stage. “When you say those names, it’s no confusion. Only one person comes to mind,” he said.
Gibson was named in the S.C. Tennis Hall of Fame in 2004, after being inducted into the National Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2002. In 1983, Gibson was inducted into the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame.
Columbia resident Moses D. Dixon, 84, who lived in Harlem for 50 years and still plays and teaches tennis, said he met Gibson once in New York as a fan.
“I think the stamp is magnificent, one of the greatest accomplishments,” Dixon said. “I think if she were living today she would be very proud. I am very proud.”