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The Match of Her Life: Althea Gibson, Icon and Instrument of Integration Open Access

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This critical biography follows the public career and private ordeals of Althea Gibson (1927-2003), the most famous black sportswoman of the middle twentieth century. Gibson was the first African American to compete at the United States National Lawn Tennis Championships at Forest Hills and the All-England Championships at Wimbledon, in 1950 and 1951, respectively. She was also the first African American to win each of those events, which she did twice each and consecutively in 1957 and 1958. Gibson’s career shows how sports became a site for debating the racial and gendered aspects of American citizenship.African American sportswomen have been overshadowed and overlooked in the field of history. Historians and journalists have cast male athletes, particularly those who boxed, were participants in the Olympic Games, or played as members of baseball, basketball, or football teams, as the principal figures in African American sport history. Their experiences have provided the most common ways of understanding the integration of sports and the role of sports in affecting the integration of American society. Black women appear in civil rights scholarship with increasing frequency, but usually as political activists and hardly ever as sports stars. This project puts the female athlete at the center of national transformations in race and popular culture.This life study mixes rigorous archival work, oral history interviews, and cultural theory to analyze how Gibson negotiated the demands of her many allies and adversaries, from her patrons in the black-led American Tennis Association, leaders of the all-white United States Lawn Tennis Association, journalists in the mainstream and Negro presses, and officials at the State Department, all of whom sought to capitalize on her unprecedented, global celebrity during the civil rights era. This dissertation makes visible the many triumphs, travails, and passages of a black sportswoman during the era of American integration, which leads to a more complete and nuanced portrait of the expansiveness and limits of sports in creating opportunities, socially and economically, for African Americans. It enables us to understand how responsibilities of racial representation and activism were specifically thrust—inter- and intra-racially—upon a black sportswoman. We see how the specific racial and class politics of tennis impacted the ways that black athletes, particularly women, were appraised and received as representatives of muscular assimilationism. At last, we are afforded opportunities to consider how a prominent black woman negotiated and resisted the politicization of her career amid gender-, class-, and race-based discrimination within and beyond the playing arena.

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