Angela Buxton, Half of an Outcast Duo in Tennis History, Dies at 85


They were both outsiders in the starched white world of elite 1950s tennis, superb players but excluded from tournaments and clubs and shunned on the circuit because of their heritage. Angela Buxton, a white, Jewish Englishwoman, was a granddaughter of Russian Jews who had fled the pogroms in the early 1900s; Althea Gibson, a Black American, was born in a sharecropper’s shack in South Carolina and grew up in Harlem.

They eventually found each other and forged a powerful doubles partnership. In 1956, they won the French Championships and Wimbledon, the jewel in the crown of a sport that had hardly welcomed them.

But for all Ms. Buxton’s prowess on the court — she was ranked in the women’s top 10 in the mid-1950s — she is best remembered for the long-lasting support and encouragement she gave Ms. Gibson, the first great Black player in women’s tennis, the first Black to win Wimbledon and, for a time, the No. 1 ranked female player in the world.

Ms. Buxton died at 85 on Aug. 14 at her home in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., the International Tennis Federation announced. No cause was given.

When Ms. Buxton and Ms. Gibson met at a tournament in New Delhi in 1955, Ms. Gibson was so discouraged by the barriers she faced as the only Black player in the top echelons of tennis that she was ready to give up the game.

“When I came on the scene, the other players wouldn’t speak to Althea much less play with her quite simply because she was Black,” Ms. Buxton told Sally Jacobs, author of a forthcoming biography of Ms. Gibson. “She was completely isolated,” she added. “I was, too, because of being Jewish. So it was a good thing we found one another.”

Ms. Buxton’s coach paired the two as doubles partners. In 1956, the same year they won in Paris and at Wimbledon, Ms. Buxton reached the singles finals at Wimbledon, losing to Shirley Fry. When Ms. Gibson won Wimbledon the following year, Ms. Buxton made the floral dress that Ms. Gibson wore to the winners’ ball.

Ms. Buxton suffered from a chronic wrist condition that forced her to cut short her career in 1957 at 22. But her successful pairing with Ms. Gibson left Ms. Gibson in demand as a doubles partner.

Ms. Buxton went on to mentor young players and write about tennis. Her books included “Tackle Lawn Tennis This Way” (1958), “Starting Tennis” (1975) and “Winning Tennis: Doubles Tactics” (1980).

And she became a lifelong friend of Ms. Gibson’s. In 1995, when Ms. Gibson was living alone in New Jersey, sick and destitute, she telephoned her old friend, whom she called “Angie baby.”

“She said she was calling to say goodbye,” Ms. Buxton told Ms. Jacobs. “She said she was going to kill herself. I said, ‘Now, wait just a minute.’”

Ms. Buxton wrote a letter to Tennis Week magazine describing Ms. Gibson’s plight and asked for contributions. Money poured in from around the world. Ms. Jacobs said in an email that Ms. Buxton’s actions had helped pull Ms. Gibson out of her slump, enabled her to buy a silver Cadillac and encouraged her to go on living. She died in 2003 at 76.

In honor of her support, Ms. Buxton was inducted into the Black Tennis Hall of Fame in 2015.

On Ms. Buxton’s death, Katrina Adams, past president of the United States Tennis Association, wrote on Twitter that Ms. Buxton had supported Ms. Gibson “when no one else would, in a racist era in our sport in the ’50s. #RIP.”

Angela Buxton was born on Aug. 16, 1934, in Liverpool. Her father, Harry Buxton, was a jewelry trader in Leeds; after amassing a windfall at gambling, he bought a string of movie theaters. Her mother, Violet (Greenberg) Buxton, was a homemaker.

When World War II broke out, Violet Buxton took Angela and her brother to South Africa, where Angela started playing tennis. When the family returned to England in 1946 — her parents would divorce the following year — she was sent to a boarding school, Gloddaeth Hall, in Wales, where her coach immediately saw her talent and developed it through local competitions.

Later, when she was denied access to training facilities — she said the reason was anti-Semitism — Simon Marks, the Jewish owner of the department store Marks & Spencer, allowed her to practice on his private court.

Ms. Buxton’s mother took her to California in 1952 so that she could play tennis year round. Though they lived near the exclusive Los Angeles Tennis Club, she was told she could not play there because she was Jewish. Instead, she commuted to public courts, where her instructor was Bill Tilden, who had been the No. 1 tennis player in the world in the 1920s before doing jail time for sexually abusing teenage boys.

Despite his downfall, Tilden remained friends with many Hollywood A-listers, and he had access to Charlie Chaplin’s tennis courts, where he would take Ms. Buxton for practice. Movie stars would drop by to play or, like Katharine Hepburn and Walter Pidgeon, act as ball boys for Tilden-Buxton sessions, Richard Hillway, a tennis historian and author of “The Birth of Lawn Tennis” (2018), said in an interview.

Back in England in 1953, Ms. Buxton came under the tutelage of C.M. “Jimmy” Jones, a maverick tennis player and coach. Her ranking soared, and she reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 1955.

Mr. Jones thought Ms. Buxton was good enough to win doubles championships if she found the right partner, and he found such a partner in Ms. Gibson, who had by then been developing a bond with Ms. Buxton as fellow outcasts.

But even after they won in France and reached the doubles finals at Wimbledon, the bigotry did not end.

The Wimbledon Ball was to be held the night before finals day, when Ms. Buxton would be competing for both the doubles and singles titles. Violet Buxton wanted to attend the ball with her daughter, who was facing the biggest matches of her life. But when mother and daughter showed up to order their tickets, according to The Telegraph of London, they were told the ball had sold out.

“The redoubtable Mrs. Buxton, detecting anti-Semitism, was furious and threatened to keep her daughter at home on the Saturday, finals day for both the women’s singles and doubles, effectively stymying the entire Championship,” The Telegraph reported.

“The pair stormed out,” the newspaper continued, “before the ticket manager, realizing how catastrophic Angela’s nonattendance would be, sprinted after them in a panic, apologizing and saying that she had managed to find two tickets after all.”

Ms. Buxton married Donald Silk, president of the British Zionist Federation, in 1959. They had two sons and a daughter. During the Six-Day War in 1967, she volunteered to work on a kibbutz in Israel with her children, all of whom were under 7 years old.

She and Mr. Silk eventually divorced, and Mr. Jones, her former coach, became her companion until his death in 1986. Of her children, only Ms. Buxton’s daughter, Rebecca Silk, survives.

One of Ms. Buxton’s last public appearances came in 2019 during the U.S. Open in New York. The occasion was the unveiling of a granite statue of Ms. Gibson outside Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens (named after another great Black tennis player).

In her brief remarks, Ms. Buxton noted that a statue could go only so far in memorializing Ms. Gibson.

“The main thing is not the statue,” she said. “It’s what I learned from her and what I enjoyed with her. That’s the main thing.” With or without the statue, she added, “the memories would still be the same.”



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