Lost In Harlem
Gibson's parents, Daniel and Anna Washington Gibson, worked as sharecroppers on a cotton farm in South Carolina. Sharecropping, in which farmers work someone else's land and receive a small part of their crop as pay, dates from the Civil War. Even in the best of circumstances, sharecropping rarely offered a decent living.
When the cotton crop failed three years in a row due to poor weather, Gibson's family moved north to New York City.
After staying with Gibson's aunt, Sally, the family settled in an apartment on West 143rd Street in Harlem. Gibson's father found work as a handyman and car mechanic, but with the birth of three more girls (Millie, Annie and Lillian) and a boy (Daniel), the family's lot was little improved, especially as the Great Depression loomed. Gibson, however, remained irrepressible. She preferred shooting pool with the local sharks to doing schoolwork. She also bowled, boxed and played basketball and stickball with the neighborhood boys. Another favorite pastime was sneaking off to the movies. "I just wanted to play, play, play," she told a Time magazine reporter. More than once she ran away from home.
By 1941 she pretty much began ignoring high school completely, as the school board wouldn't transfer her to the school her friends attended. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children's staff, while providing gentle guidance, emphasized that if her delinquency were to continue, they would have to put Gibson in a reform school. She struck a bargain: She would attend school at night if the agency would help her get working papers, despite her age.
But Gibson had energy to burn. She never made good on going to night school, and was fired repeatedly from menial jobs for skipping work to do things like go to concerts at the Apollo Theater. By age 14, New York City's welfare department helped Gibson find more suitable living arrangements and a better job. And then she discovered tennis.
Until her formal involvement in sports, Gibson always struggled to "be somebody." The Police Athletic League sponsored various recreational programs, including paddle tennis, at which she excelled. Musician Buddy Walker, who at the time coached for the PAL's recreation department, noticed Gibson playing paddleball (a popular urban sport played with a wooden paddle and ball against a wall). Suggesting she might enjoy tennis, he gave her a used racquet and taught her the basics. Convinced of her raw talent, Walker introduced her to the upscale Harlem Cosmopolitan Club, where she played a few sets with the pro there, Fred Johnson. The club members, impressed, bought Gibson a junior membership and lessons with Johnson. One member, Rhoda Smith, who had lost her own daughter a decade earlier, took Gibson under her wing, buying her tennis clothes and teaching the chronic rule breaker some new rules, those of social etiquette.