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Queen of the Segregated Tennis World

American Masters recounts the life of Althea Gibson

9/1/2015, 11:19 a.m.
Don’t miss the story of Althea Gibson, who emerged as the unlikely queen of the segregated tennis world of the ...
A photo from 1958 shows Althea Gibson (left) and Millicent Miller at the Merion Cricket Club where Gibson defeated Miller in the first round of the Pennsylvania Lawn Tennis Championships. Miller is the mother of Rex Miller, the PBS director for ‘American Masters: Althea. ’ The photo is what inspired him to make the documentary.

Don’t miss the story of Althea Gibson, who emerged as the unlikely queen of the segregated tennis world of the 1950s. Her life is recounted in “American Masters: Althea,” premiering nationwide Friday, Sept. 4 at 9 p.m. on PBS. An encore presentation of “American Masters: Billie Jean King” will follow the broadcast from 10:30 p.m. to midnight.

Rex Miller the director, says he began searching for Althea’s story because of a photograph that hung on the wall of his childhood bedroom.

Taken in 1958, it shows two-brown skinned women, dressed in tennis whites, holding tennis rackets and standing on the front lawn of the Merion Cricket Club, a prestigious and highly restricted tennis club outside of Philadelphia. One woman was his mother, Millicent Miller. The other was Althea Gibson. In the background one can see a small score board that tells the tale of the match, a one-sided victory for Gibson.

“This was my mom’s moment of tennis glory, a story I heard many many times and led me to take a look at the details of Althea’s life, which I found more and more compelling as I peeled back the layers, which just kept coming,” Rex Miller said.

Gibson’s story traces the larger thread of African-American history, as she went from South Carolina cotton fields to the Harlem Renaissance, then back down to the Jim Crow South. She was a reluctant Civil Rights icon, crossed over from tennis to blaze a trail in golf, and then turned to show business to try to earn a living. All of this as a black woman in the 1950s, with no discernible support system and whispers about her sexuality trailing her.

For more information and a short trailer on this exciting and detailed historic episode of American Masters, visit pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/althea-gibson/preview-the-film/3927.