By David E. Kaplan
If you want to become a life member of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world – the All England Club, which organises the Wimbledon Championships – then either marry a prince, like Kate Middleton did, or try the easier way and – WIN IT!
When Simona Halep won last Saturday the Wimbledon women’s final, what seemed to please her the most was that as a champion, she, too, now had life membership of the venerable old club started in 1868 “by six gentlemen” at the offices of The Field, the world’s oldest country and field sports magazine.
Halep had spoken in the locker room earlier in the fortnight about what membership would mean and said:
“It was one of my motivations before this tournament, so now I’m happy.”
And Halep wasted little time in taking advantage of her elevated status, being pictured the day after her win against Serena Williams smiling broadly with a purple membership badge pinned to her red dress after being awarded it by club chairman Philip Brook.
However, for some, even by winning the world’s most famous and prestigious tennis event might not get you to the coveted membership; that is if you’re either Jewish or Black.
Ask 84-year-old Jewish Angela Buxton, who is accusing the All England Club of Antisemitism because she has yet to receive membership 63 years after her victory in 1956.
It’s too late to ask her Black American doubles partner, and twice Wimbledon singles champion Althea Gibson who passed away in 2003.
In 1956, the English former tennis player Angela Buxton, together with her playing partner, Althea Gibson won the women’s doubles title at both the French Championships and Wimbledon.
Angela Buxton was the first British Jewish player to win a title at Wimbledon. Following the win with Althea Gibson – the first black American woman to compete and to win at the tournament – a British newspaper at the time ran the headline:
Gibson was the only black woman to win the Wimbledon singles (1957 and 1958) until Venus Williams took the title in 2000. When she died in 2003, she was still awaiting her membership after applying – like her Jewish partner, Angela – in 1956.
Born in Liverpool, Angela Buxton was the daughter of second-generation immigrants from Russia. Angela and her family spent the war years in South Africa where she took up tennis at the age of eight and quickly excelled. Returning to England following WWII, Angela pursued her tennis in London and then in California where she was coached by Ben Tilden, an ex-Wimbledon winner with whom she began playing mixed doubles.
Angela returned to England in 1953, ready to compete in Wimbledon, but at the Bournemouth Hardcourt Championship she was soundly beaten by the reigning Wimbledon champion Doris Hart. Ready to quit, Buxton decided to play in her last tournament at the 1953 Maccabi Games in Israel. There she won two gold medals which renewed her confidence, and back in London, Angela had her most successful tennis year in 1956. It was “my Wimbledon year,” winning the women’s doubles title and reaching the singles final.
So, while the players battle on the manicured grass courts of Wimbledon each year in July surrounded by the history of the world’s oldest tennis tournament, rarely remembered is the prejudice-defying moment in 1956 when Althea and Angela – the African-American and the British Jew – teamed up to win the women’s doubles championship.
Both had to overcome prejudice which stands in sharp contrast to today’s diversity in the top ranks of tennis.
When residing in South Africa during the WWII, Angela’s neighbors complained about her playing “with nonwhite girls” with one exploding at her mother, telling her, “You Jews think you own the world.”
Back in England after the war, Angela began winning regularly on the junior tennis circuit and took lessons at London’s renowned Cumberland Lawn Tennis Club in West Hampstead. Dating back over 120 years, the CLTC is steeped in history since the first balls were hit on its courts back in the 1800s.
However, much harder than the hard surfaces of the courts, was the below the surface antisemitism in post-Second World War England. Regardless of her talent, her coach at the Cumberland assured her:
“You’re perfectly good, but you’re Jewish. We don’t take Jews here.”
The American Civil War might have ended slavery; WWII did not end antisemitism.
“Waiting For Godot”
Like the two central characters in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot who never arrives, so the two players (one posthumously) of the 1956 final are waiting for Wimbledon that too ‘never arrives’.
While Angela was one of the first individuals to be inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame during its opening ceremony in Netanya, Israel in 1981 and next month will be recognised at a special ceremony at the 2019 US Open, where she will deliver a speech about her doubles partner Althea Gibson, Wimbledon still ignores her.
When Angela last inquired about the status of her membership, she was told that “They said I had refused it and my membership had gone to the back of the queue. This is simply not true; I never refused it and there are so many players who didn’t do anything like me and got membership.”
Noting the increase in antisemitism in the UK and its prevalence in the Labour Party – the traditional party of much of Britain’s Jewish community – Angela expressed to The Times, “It’s an unfortunate example of how the British really treat Jews in this country. This sort of thing exacerbates the feeling towards Jews. It’s perfectly ridiculous, it’s laughable. It speaks volumes.”
A Wimbledon spokeswoman responded: “While the decision-making process for membership of the All England Club is a private
matter, we strongly refute any suggestion that race, or religion plays a factor.”
Meanwhile, Wimbledon’s Jewish champion Angela Buxton is still waiting for recognition.
Well now that the matter is out in the open and hardly a “private matter”, the question remains:
At 84, how much longer is Angela Buxton expected to still stand “in the queue”?