Althea Gibson, born to sharecroppers in Silver, South Carolina, in 1927 and reared in Harlem, was taught to box by her father, which led to a youth of street fights before her neighbors took up a collection to send her for tennis lessons at Harlem’s Sugar Hill Cosmopolitan club. “I kept wanting to fight the other player every time I started to lose a match,” Gibson recalled – but she stuck with the game and won a string of amateur girls titles.
At the outset of the 1950s, Gibson was a formidable tennis player but she was barred by her color from competing at the U.S. tennis championships (now the U.S. Open). Until she wasn’t. She broke the color line for men or women there in 1950, although she lost in the second round. She wasn’t done.
In 1956, Gibson, an aggressive, imposing, 5’ 11” player who moved like a dancer, became the first African-American athlete to win a Grand Slam tournament, at the French Championships, in singles. In 1957, she competed as the first seed in women’s singles on the grass at Wimbledon.
The 1957 Wimbledon women’s final was played on July 6 at the All England Club, in the suburb of London, with Gibson facing off against her countrywoman, Darlene Hard. Gibson took the first set 6-3, then got off to a strong start in the second.
Almost at that moment, on that Saturday, in the north of England, at a garden fête at St. Peter’s Church in Woolton, a suburb of Liverpool, 16-year-old John Lennon was taking the stage for his second-ever performance with his band The Quarrymen. They performed a mix of folk music and rock ’n’ roll, all of it largely derived from African-American music. They were playing a cover of The Del-Vikings’ “Come Go With Me,” a hit then riding the charts for the American doo-wop group, when 15-year-old Paul McCartney arrived on his bicycle and was introduced to Lennon.
McCartney picked up a guitar and did his best imitation of Little Richard. Quarryman Len Garry said to Lennon, “It’s brilliant. He can do Little Richard, you can’t do that.”
To the south, Gibson stormed through her second set, 6-2, clinching the title of what then was the world championship of tennis. But there was more. That day, she became the first African-American champion, male or female, in the tournament’s 80-year history, conquering a very white preserve. In short order she also became the first champion to receive the trophy personally from Queen Elizabeth II.
“Shaking hands with the queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus,” Gibson said.
In Liverpool, the nucleus of a band had been formed that would become The Beatles in 1960. Of the 14 songs on their debut album, in 1963, half were written by Lennon and McCartney, an astounding feat for the time, and an auspicious one.
Of the rest, there were cover shout-outs to the Black music from America that had shaped the band’s sensibilities, which they would soon sell back to America, including “Anna,” written by Arthur Alexander and a stateside hit for the soul singer from Sheffield, Alabama; “Chains,” a 1962 hit for the Black girl group The Cookies, of New York City; “Boys” and “Baby It’s You,” both originally recorded by The Shirelles, a groundbreaking Black female vocal group from Passaic, New Jersey; and “Twist and Shout,” which had been a hit the year before for The Isley Brothers, a Black quartet from Cincinnati, Ohio.
The Beatles never stopped wanting to sound like Little Richard, to be Little Richard, until unprecedented fame overtook them; and even then, they knew they also were the exponents of Black American accomplishment, even when, in 1965, eight years after Gibson’s triumph, they got their MBEs from the queen.