Last year I had the pleasure of conducting a Q & A session with film director Rex Miller after a private screening of his documentary “Althea” at Coca-Cola World Headquarters, in Atlanta. I was captivated by the story of America’s first black tennis hero. Like so many people my age, I was aware of Althea Gibson and felt like I knew a good bit about her even though her major tennis victories took place before I was born.
Of course, the film left me feeling amazed by all that I didn’t know about the first African-American to win both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. While possessing multiple talents in athletics and music, Althea’s personal story is one with multiple layers and seeing it all made me a bigger fan.
So when Rex Miller reached out me to travel with “Althea” as part of the South Arts Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers, there was no way I was going to say no. My job was to introduce the film and conduct a short discussion afterward at two tour stops, Wallace State College, in Hanceville, Alabama, and the Ritz Theatre in Sheffield , Alabama.
Being a native of Birmingham,anytime I drive through Alabama I am filled with nostalgia . Road trips with my family to visit relatives, mostly in the southern section of the state. Going on the road with Althea would take me to North Central Alabama, an area where I had not spent much time.
The first stop was Wallace State College in Hanceville. If you manage to drive past Wallace State and fail to see it that means you have also missed Hanceville. Arriving their late at night, I checked into Hanceville’s only hotel,located across the road from campus.
The Burrow Center and Museum is not hard to find, the first building you see once on campus. Those in attendance seemed captivated,by the story of “Althea”. Afterward, most of them asked the question ” How and Why someone who had represented her country and her people so well could have such a rough time once her days of competition were over”? Actually, the rough times began while Althea was still competing, something that is unthinkable when you think of today’s lucrative world of pro sports.
Speaking of that lucrative world. As I was leaving the Burrow Center, I looked over an exhibit that featured Nike basketball shoes. 430 pairs of Nike shoes, most them were Air Jordan shoes collected over the years by a women named Charlotte Cummings.All I could think of was what if Althea Gibson had the chance at just one shoe endorsement deal, and how it would have changed her life.
On to Sheffield, Alabama, which is located next door to Florence, which is around the corner from Muscle Schoals, and down the street from Tuscumbia. The area had more history than I imagined , and claims W.C Handy, Hellen Keller, and Jesse Owens as natives.
I was invited to be a guest on WZZA radio where I was interviewed by Torry Bailey, who in addition to being the stations General Manager is also a civic leader. The interview with Torry went for close to an hour as there were many questions about the film and about tennis in America today.
The area is big for music and I took some time to visit FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Schoals. I listened to the stories and saw some of the original instruments used for recordings by the likes of Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, and a baby grand that Alicia Keys recently used.
Once again , my thoughts went back to Althea. She loved music and had done some recordings of her own. I could just see the tall tennis star stepping into one of the sound proof booths to put her voice to tape.
That evening I headed to the Ritz, a charming old theatre that has been restored in Downtown Sheffield. It is an intimate setting, excellent for films , concerts or plays. I was told that the Ritz once hosted a western show that featured Gene Autry and the Singing Cowboy actually rode his horse onto the stage.
The audience for the Sheffield screening included the city’s mayor, Ian Sanford. Mayor Sanford enjoyed the film and after asking several questions expressed a desire to have the film shown by the local school system , an idea that was like music to my ears.
You see, this was the third time that I had watched the documentary, and while many in the audience were of an age to remember Althea Gibson and were familiar with her story, there were few if any school age children at either of the screenings.
Film Director Rex Miller, wants to see the film shown in schools and on college campuses, especially HBCU campuses. It’s the youth who need to be educated,entertained,enlighten, and inspired by the story of this American Icon.
So while my time on the road with ” Althea” has come to an end it is my sincere hope that the film’s road trip is just beginning.Because people need to know that, before there was Venus, Serena,Zina and Arthur, there was ” Althea” .