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NYC honors tennis legend Althea Gibson with street renaming

Althea Gibson Way is at the intersection of West 143rd Street and Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem.
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Althea Gibson made history by breaking barriers in tennis. Now she is getting a street renamed in her honor.

During a celebration Thursday, Gibson — who was the first Black tennis player to win a Grand Slam title — was honored in her hometown, Harlem, by having a street renamed after her on what would have been her 95th birthday. The intersection of West 143rd Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, where Gibson grew up, is now called Althea Gibson Way. 

The ceremony took place in front of Gibson’s old apartment building on 143rd Street and was attended by the tennis star’s family, who received a replica of the new  street sign. Gibson’s great niece, Sonia Melvin, spoke about how much Gibson meant to the family. 

“She was just auntie to us,” Melvin told NBC News New York. “I mean, she wasn’t this big icon to us — but we loved her.”

Born in 1927, Gibson was the daughter of sharecroppers in South Carolina who moved to Harlem in 1929. There, she was introduced to the Harlem River Tennis Courts in 1941, where she developed her skills.

Image: Althea Gibson
Althea Gibson in Beckenham, England, circa 1951.Bert Hardy / Getty Images

In 1950, at the age of 23, Gibson made history as the first African American to compete at the U.S. Open (then known as the U.S. Nationals). She also was the first Black person to win a Grand Slam tournament in 1956 (the French Championships, now the French Open), and in 1957, she became the first Black player to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. In 1971, Gibson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She died in 2003 at the age of 76 in East Orange, N.J., from respiratory failure.

Despite Gibson’s historic achievements, her family says she is still unknown to many.

“Sometimes I’ll say Althea Gibson is my great-aunt, and they’ll be like, ‘Who’s that?’” said Crystal Thorne, another grand-niece of Gibson. 

In an effort to preserve Gibson’s legacy, the city of New York plans to build a statue of her in her Harlem neighborhood. There are already statues of Gibson spread throughout New York and New Jersey, including at the USTA Billie Jean National Tennis Center in Queens, and the Althea Gibson Tennis Courts in Newark, N.J.

“It is imperative that we keep her name alive,” said Katrina Adams, former president and CEO of the U.S. Tennis Association, during Thursday’s ceremony. “It’s the next generation that needs to know that before Coco, Venus, Serena, Chanda, me, Lori, Zina and Leslie, was Althea. Why? Because Althea came first.”