Edited by Gerald Boerner



JerryPhoto_thumb2_thumb_thumb_thumb_Today we look at the first six of eighteen African American women athletes who have had major impact on several sports during the 20th century. Many of these individuals are still alive and continue to work for the improvement of the status and experience of Blacks Women Athletes, both in the United States and abroad. Many of these athletes have helped to fight for the rights of the Black people in this country from slavery to freedom. These athletes have provided us with first-class entertainment on the tennis court, track and field venues (especially at the Olympic Games), and in other stadiums and arenas across the country. Much of these feats have been accomplished during the post-World War II decades. These women continue to fight for the rich heritage of the African American Women and provide role models to the young Black American females.

Young Black Athletes

This is the first installment of a three part series that celebrates lives and achievements of these selected eighteen women athletes. It is, by necessity, a long document, but it details the lives and representative work of these very talented individuals.

Let us celebrate the lives and feats of these women who used their athletic talents for the cause of the African American people and the Civil Rights movement. We now will proceed to examine the lives and works of these African American Women in more detail GLB

These Introductory Comments are copyrighted:
Copyright©2012 — Gerald Boerner — All Rights Reserved

[ 4304 Words ]


Quotations Related to Milestones in History — Athletes:

[ http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/athletes.html ]


“Among the world elite there are a handful of athletes who are physically capable of winning it.”
— Maurice Greene

“As athletes, we’re used to reacting quickly. Here, it’s ‘come, stop, come, stop.’ There’s a lot of downtime. That’s the toughest part of the day.”
— Michael Jordan

“Athletes know kids look up to them, and it’s important for athletes to be responsible.”
— Deion Sanders

“Athletes who take to the classroom naturally or are encouraged to focus on grades should be able to do well in the classroom. I believe the reason you go to college is to get your degree. It’s not a minor league or an audition for the pros.”
— Rebecca Lobo

“But as much as I am personally proud for winning five championships, I’m equally proud just being part of a women’s division that has gotten so much better with all these great athletes here.”
— Trish Stratus

“Getting to know athletes from all over the planet is a big part of the Olympic experience.”
— Mary Lou Retton

“Everything about the Olympics was first class, and women were treated as athletes and equals.”
— Elizabeth Robinson Schwartz

“For centuries, New York has served as the gateway for millions of people from all over the world in search of the American dream. It only makes sense that it would now serve as a gateway for the world’s greatest athletes.”
— Hillary Clinton


Milestones — Unsung Heroes of Black History: Black Women Athletes, Part 1…


Wimbledon TrophyDuring the last half century, Africans have taken their place on the stage of world-class athletics. Key events in this world-wide competition include the Grand Slam events in tennis, the Summer and Winter Olympic Games held every four years, and other world-class trials. We are looking today at the athletes that made their marks on this world stage.

The four Major tennis tournaments, also called the Slams, are the most important tennis events of the year in terms of world tour ranking points, tradition, prize-money awarded, strength and size of player field, and public attention. They are the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open. Currently, both the Australian Open and the US Open are played on hard courts, while the French Open is played on clay, and Wimbledon is played on grass. The "Grand Slam" is the winning of all four Major tournaments in a single calendar year; however, it has also been used for many years now to refer to any of the major tournaments, (e.g., American tennis player Pete Sampras, who won 14 Major titles in his career, is often said to have won 14 "Grand Slams"—even though he did not achieve a true Grand Slam by winning all four Majors in a single year).

The Open Era of tennis began in 1968 when the Major tournaments agreed to allow professional players to compete. Wimbledon, the oldest of the Majors, was founded in 1877, followed by the US Open in 1881, the French Open in 1891, and the Australian Open in 1905. Beginning in 1905 and continuing to the present day, all four majors have been played yearly, with the exception of the two World Wars and 1986 for the Australian Open. The Australian Open is the 1st Major of the year (January), followed by the French Open (May–June), Wimbledon (June–July), and US Open (August–September).

A player who wins all four major tournaments, as a single or as part of a doubles team, in the same calendar year is said to have achieved the "Grand Slam". If the player wins all four consecutively, but not in the same calendar year, it is called a "Non-Calendar Year Grand Slam". Winning all four at some point in a career, even if not consecutively, is referred to as a "Career Grand Slam". Winning the four Majors and a gold medal in tennis at the Summer Olympics has been called a "Golden Slam" since 1988, when Steffi Graf became the only person to accomplish that feat in a single calendar year. Winning all four plus gold at some point in a career, even if not consecutively, is referred to as a "Career Golden Slam". Winning the four Majors in all three disciplines a player is eligible for – singles, doubles, and mixed doubles – is considered winning a "boxed set" of Grand Slam titles.

Editor: Our focus here is upon the unsung heroes of this African American experience as they have contributed to the Arts and Literature over the last two hundred years or so. Today, we focus upon those Black Women who have made significant contributions as athletes — Olympics Games, Tennis, and Basketball. Some were amateurs and others were professionals, but they all set examples for us all. Typically, their contributions have been ignored in favor of the contributions of their male counterparts. But the dozen plus women that we feature here have made significant contributions to the body of American Athletic scene. For that contribution, we salute them. (Part 1 of 3)


History Channel’s Unsung Heroes:
Black Women Athletes (Part 1)

Althea Gibson (1927–2003)

Althea Gibson poses with a bouquet of roses, a pair of tennis racquets and a trophy after her victory in the French Championships (later the French Open), Paris, France, May 1956. Althea Gibson was also the first African American woman to win the Wimbledon tennis tournament. (Photo Credit: Corbis)

althea-gibsonAlthea Gibson (August 25, 1927 – September 28, 2003) was a World No. 1 American sportswoman who became the first African-American woman to be a competitor on the world tennis tour and the first to win a Grand Slam title in 1956. She is sometimes referred to as "the Jackie Robinson of tennis" for breaking the color barrier. Gibson was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.

In 1958, Gibson retired from amateur tennis. Before the open era began, there was no prize money, other than an expense allowance, and no endorsement deals. To begin earning prize money, tennis players had to give up their amateur status. As there was no professional tour for women, Gibson was limited to playing in a series of exhibition tours.

According to Lance Tingay of The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, Gibson was ranked in the world top ten from 1956 through 1958, reaching a career high of No. 1 in those rankings in 1957 and 1958. Gibson was included in the year-end top ten rankings issued by the United States Tennis Association in 1952 and 1953 and from 1955 through 1958. She was the top-ranked U.S. player in 1957 and 1958. In 1957 Althea became the first African American woman to win Wimbledon. She won again in 1958. In 1958, she appeared as the celebrity challenger on the TV panel show "What’s My Line?".

In retirement, Gibson wrote her autobiography and in 1959 recorded an album, Althea Gibson Sings, as well as appearing in the motion picture, The Horse Soldiers. In 1964, she became the first African American woman to play in the Ladies Professional Golf Association. However, she was too old to be successful and only played for a few years.

In 1971, Gibson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, and in 1975, she was appointed the New Jersey state commissioner of athletics. In 1977, she challenged incumbent Essex County State Senator Frank J. Dodd in the Democratic primary for his seat. She came in second behind Dodd, but ahead of Assemblyman Eldridge Hawkins. After 10 years as commissioner, she went on to work in other public service positions, including serving on the governor’s council on physical fitness. In later years, she suffered two cerebral aneurysms and, in 1992, a stroke. A few years later, Gibson called her former doubles partner Angela Buxton and told her she was considering suicide, as she was living on welfare and unable to pay for rent or medication. Buxton arranged for a letter to appear in a tennis magazine. Buxton told Gibson nothing about the letter, but the latter received nearly US$1 million from around the world.

On the opening night of the 2007 US Open, the 50th anniversary of Gibson’s victory at the US Championships in 1957 (now the US Open), Gibson was inducted into US Open Court of Champions. She was a 1994 inductee of the Sports Hall of Fame of New Jersey and 2009 inductee of the New Jersey Hall of Fame. In September 2009, the City of Wilmington, NC named its new community tennis complex the Althea Gibson Tennis Center. 

Zina Garrison (1963– )

[Not on the History Channel List] During her career, she was a women’s singles runner-up at Wimbledon in 1990, a three-time Grand Slam mixed doubles champion, and a women’s doubles gold medalist at the 1988 Olympic Games.

zina-garrison_1434856cZina Lynna Garrison (born November 16, 1963 in Houston, Texas) is a former professional tennis player from the United States. During her career, she was a women’s singles runner-up at Wimbledon in 1990, a three-time Grand Slam mixed doubles champion, and a women’s doubles gold medalist at the 1988 Olympic Games.

Garrison began suffering from the eating disorder bulimia when she was 19, following the death of her mother. "I had never been comfortable with my looks and felt I had lost the only person who loved me unconditionally", Garrison told the British Observer Sport Monthly in 2006. “The pressure of being labeled ‘the next Althea Gibson’ only made things worse. I felt I was never going to be allowed to grow into just becoming me.”

Garrison turned professional in 1982, and skipped her graduation at Ross Sterling High School to compete in the French Open, her first tournament as a professional, where she reached the quarterfinals before being knocked-out by Martina Navrátilová.

Despite battling bulimia during her first few years on the tour, Garrison enjoyed notable success on-court. She reached the Australian Open semifinals in her first full year on the tour – 1983 – and finished the year ranked World No. 10. She won her first top-level singles titles in 1984 at the European Indoor Championships in Zürich. She was a Wimbledon semifinalist in 1985, and in 1986, she won her first tour doubles at the Canadian Open (partnering Gabriela Sabatini).

At the Australian Open in 1987, Garrison won the mixed doubles (partnering Sherwood Stewart) and finished runner-up in the women’s doubles (partnering Lori McNeil). A year later, Garrison and Stewart captured the mixed doubles title at Wimbledon.

At the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Garrison teamed with Pam Shriver to win the women’s doubles gold medal for the United States, defeating Jana Novotná and Helena Suková of Czechoslovakia in the final. And Garrison defeated Shriver in the quarterfinals of the singles event, where she won a bronze medal.

In 1989, Garrison defeated Chris Evert 7–6, 6–2 in the quarterfinals of the US Open in what proved to be the final Grand Slam singles match of Evert’s career. Garrison subsequently lost to Navrátilová in the semifinals. She finished 1989 ranked a career-high World No. 4 in singles.

The highlight of Garrison’s career came in 1990 at Wimbledon. She defeated French Open champion Monica Seles in the quarterfinals 3–6, 6–3, 9–7 and the defending Wimbledon champion and World No. 1 Steffi Graf in the semifinals 6–3, 3–6, 6–4 to reach her first (and only) Grand Slam singles final. There, she lost to Navrátilová 6–4, 6–1 who won her record ninth women’s singles title at Wimbledon. However, Garrison claimed her third Grand Slam mixed doubles title at Wimbledon that year (partnering Rick Leach).

Venus Williams (1980– )

Venus Williams celebrates her semi-final victory over Maria Sharapova at the 2005 Wimbledon Championships. Williams went on to beat Lindsay Davenport to win the championship. (Photo Credit: Corbis)


venus-williamsVenus Ebony Starr Williams (born June 17, 1980), is an American professional tennis player who is a former World No. 1 and is ranked World No. 133 as of 30th January 2012 in singles and World No. 20 in doubles as of 2011. She has been ranked World No. 1 in singles by the Women’s Tennis Association on three separate occasions. She became the World No. 1 for the first time on February 25, 2002, becoming the first black woman to achieve this feat during the open era.

Her 21 Grand Slam titles ties her for twelfth on the all time list and is more than any other active female player except for her younger sister Serena Williams. Venus Williams’ titles consist of: seven in singles, twelve in women’s doubles, and two in mixed doubles. Those seven Grand Slam singles titles ties her with four other women for twelfth place on the all-time list. Her five Wimbledon singles titles ties her with two other women for eighth place on the all-time list. Venus Williams is one of only three women in the open era to have won five or more Wimbledon singles titles. From the 2000 Wimbledon Championships through the 2001 US Open, Williams won four of the six Grand Slam singles tournaments held. She is one of only five women in the open era to win 200 or more main draw Grand Slam singles matches.

Williams has won three Olympic gold medals, one in singles and two in women’s doubles. She has won more Olympic gold medals than any other female tennis player. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Williams became only the second player to win Olympic gold medals in both singles and doubles at the same Olympic Games, after Helen Wills Moody in 1924.

With 43career singles titles, Williams leads active players on the WTA Tour. Her 35-match winning streak from the 2000 Wimbledon Championships to the 2000 Generali Ladies Linz tournament final is the longest winning streak since January 1, 2000. She is also one of only two active WTA players to have made the finals of all four Grand Slams, the other player being her sister Serena Williams.

Venus Williams has played against her sister Serena Williams in 23 professional matches since 1998, with Serena winning 13 of the 23 matches. They have played against each other in eight Grand Slam singles finals, with Serena winning six times. Beginning with the 2002 French Open, they opposed each other in four consecutive Grand Slam singles finals, the first time ever in the open era that the same two players played against each other in four consecutive Grand Slam singles finals, let alone sisters. On the doubles side, the pair have won 12 Grand Slam doubles titles playing alongside each other.

Serena Williams (1981– )

Serena Williams clutches the trophy after winning the 2009 Australian Open. She beat Russian player Dinara Safina in the championship match. (Photo Credit: Corbis)

serena-williamsSerena Jameka Williams
(born September 26, 1981) is an American professional tennis player and a former world no. 1. The Women’s Tennis Association has ranked her world no. 1 in singles on five separate occasions. She became the world no. 1 for the first time on July 8, 2002 and regained this ranking for the fifth time on November 2, 2009.

Her 27 Grand Slam titles places her ninth on the all-time list: 13 in singles, 12 in women’s doubles, and 2 in mixed doubles. She is the most recent player, male or female, to have held all four Grand Slam singles titles simultaneously and only the fifth woman in history to do so. She was also the first woman, along with sister Venus Williams, to hold all four Grand Slam doubles titles simultaneously since Martina Hingis did so in 1998. Her 13 Grand Slam singles titles is sixth on the all-time list. Williams ranks fourth in Grand Slam women’s singles titles won during the open era, behind Steffi Graf (22 titles) and Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova (18 titles each). She has won more Major titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles than any other active player, male or female.

Williams has won two Olympic gold medals in women’s doubles. She has won more career prize money than any other female athlete in history. Serena has played older sister Venus in 23 professional matches since 1998, with Serena winning 13 of these matches. They have met in eight Grand Slam finals, with Serena winning six times. Beginning with the 2002 French Open, they played each other in four consecutive Grand Slam singles finals, which was the first time in the open era that the same two players had contested four consecutive Grand Slam finals. The pair have won 12 Grand Slam doubles titles together. She is the first player, male or female, to win 5 Australian Open titles during the open era.

Williams’ family moved from Compton to West Palm Beach when she was nine so that she could attend the tennis academy of Rick Macci, who would provide additional coaching. Macci spotted the exceptional talents of the sisters. He did not always agree with Williams’ father but respected that "he treated his daughters like kids, allowed them to be little girls". Richard stopped sending his daughters to national junior tennis tournaments when Williams was 10, since he wanted them to take it slow and focus on school work. Another motivation was racial, as he had allegedly heard parents of white players talk about the Williams sisters in a derogatory manner during tournaments. At that time, Williams had a 46–3 record on the United States Tennis Association junior tour and was ranked No. 1 among under 10 players in Florida. In 1995, when Serena was in the ninth grade, Richard pulled his daughters out of Macci’s academy, and from then on took over all coaching at their home. When asked in 2000 whether having followed the normal path of playing regularly on the junior circuit would have been beneficial, Williams responded: “Everyone does different things. I think for Venus and I, we just tried a different road, and it worked for us.”

Williams is primarily a baseline player. Her game is built around taking immediate control of rallies with a powerful and consistent serve (considered by some to be the best in the women’s game), return of serve, and forceful groundstrokes from both her forehand and backhand swings. Williams’ forehand is considered to be among the most powerful shots in the women’s game as is her double-handed backhand. Williams strikes her backhand groundstroke using an open stance, and uses the same open stance for her forehand. Williams’s aggressive play, a "high risk" style, is balanced in part by her serve, which combines great power and placement with very high consistency. Her serve has been hit as hard as 128 mph (206.5 km/h), the second-fastest all-time among female players (Venus recorded the fastest with 129 mph). Serena also possesses a very solid volley and powerful overhead which is very useful for her net game. Although many think of Williams as only an offensive player, she also plays a strong defensive game.

Debi Thomas (1967– )

Debbie Thomas won the bronze medal in lady’s figure skating at the 1988 Winter Olympics. (Photo Credit: Corbis)

debbie-thomasDebra Janine "Debi" Thomas M.D. (born March 25, 1967) is an American figure skater and physician. She is the 1986 World champion and 1988 Olympic bronze medalist, having taken part in the Battle of the Carmens at those games.

She represented the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club from 1983 on, which launched her career. Debi was coached by Alex McGowan from age 10 until she retired from amateur competition at age 21.

Thomas won both the 1986 U.S. national title and the 1986 World Championships; those achievements earned Thomas the ABC’s Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year award that year. She was the first female athlete to win those titles while attending college full time since Tenley Albright in the 1950s. She was the first African-American to hold U.S. National titles in ladies’ singles figure skating. Thomas was a pre-med student at Stanford University during this time although it was unusual for a top U.S. skater to go to college at the same time as competing.

In 1987, Thomas was injured with Achilles tendinitis in both ankles and struggled at the U.S. Nationals, placing second to Jill Trenary, but rebounded at the World Championships, finishing a close second to East German skater Katarina Witt.

In January 1988, Thomas reclaimed the U.S. National title. At the 1988 Winter Olympics held in Calgary, she and Katarina Witt engaged in a rivalry that the media dubbed the "Battle of the Carmens", as both women skated their long programs to the music of Bizet’s opera Carmen. Thomas skated strong compulsory figures and performed well in the short program to an instrumental version of "Something in My House" by Dead or Alive, but performed poorly in the long program. Thomas fell three (3) times in the long program. She placed fifth in the long program and won the bronze medal, behind Witt and Canadian skater Elizabeth Manley (Thomas fell from first place going into the long program to third place overall in the final standings). Thomas won the bronze medal at the 1988 World Figure Skating Championships and then retired from amateur skating.

Thomas was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2000. She was also selected by President George W. Bush to be part of the U.S. Delegation for the Opening Ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin Italy along with other former Olympians: Dorothy Hamill, Eric Heiden, Kerri Strug, and Herschel Walker . Debi recently returned to the ice briefly to participate in "The Caesars Tribute: A Salute to the Golden Age of American Skating", an event which featured many of the greatest legends and icons of American figure skating.

Vonetta Flowers (1973– )

In 2002 Vonetta Flowers became the first black athlete to win a gold medal at a Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. (Photo Credit: Corbis)


vonetta-flowersVonetta Flowers (born Vonetta Jeffery on October 29, 1973 in Birmingham, Alabama) is an American bobsledder and athlete. Flowers was a star sprinter and long jumper at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and originally aspired to make the U.S. Summer Olympic Team. After several failed attempts, Flowers turned to bobsledding, and found success as a brakewoman almost immediately. At the 2002 Winter Olympics, she, along with driver Jill Bakken, won the gold medal in the two-woman event, becoming the first black person to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics. After the Salt Lake City Games, Flowers gave birth to twins and took some time off from the sport. In 2003, she returned to competition with new driver Jean Prahm. Flowers and Prahm competed in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, finishing sixth.

Flowers also won the two-woman event at the 2004 FIBT World Championships in Königssee. She retired from competition after the 2006 Winter Olympics.

In December 2010, she was elected to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. She will be inducted as a member of the Class of 2011 in May.


The paragraphs in italics above were taken from the slide show published by the History Channel (see References). Click HERE to access that slideshow. The photographs of the women are courtesy of Corbis and Getty Images.



Female Athletes… (3:54)



Please take time to further explore more about African Americans, Althea Gibson, Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Debi Thomas, Vonetta Flowers, Zina Garrison, Black History Month, and Black Women Athletes by accessing the Wikipedia articles referenced below…





Background information is from Wikipedia articles on:

Wikipedia: African Americans

Wikipedia: Althea Gibson…

Wikipedia: Venus Williams…

Wikipedia: Serena Williams…

Wikipedia: Debi Thomas…

Wikipedia: Vonetta Flowers…

Wikipedia: Zina Garrison…

Women Talk Sports: Black History Month – Honoring Female Athletes…

CBS Interactive: 10 Greatest Women Athletes…

History Channel: Black Women in Art and Literature: Black Women Athletes

Brainy Quote: Athletes Quotes…


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