She took her life savings and began plans for a 22,000 square foot community center that would serve the kids in her home neighborhood of North Philadelphia.
“When she first told me this idea, I thought she was crazy,” said Ralph Mundy, a longtime friend of Harris. “A lot of people did. But you didn’t tell Bronal Harris ‘no.’”
Harris’ life mission was to support the community. In her 24 years at CoreStates Bank (now Wells Fargo), Harris reviewed proposals from non-profit community organizations and approved them for grants. Her career, combined with her inherent passion for the community, was the driving force behind her dream of a community center.
“Her job at the bank gave her a unique insight into what was going on in her community,” Mundy said. “She saw where support was needed and eventually realized that she could do something herself.”
But she had a unique angle: tennis.
For Harris, tennis offered exactly what these kids needed. In tennis, she saw a totally different aspect of athletics that matched perfectly with the overall mission of her community center. It was a grueling and strategic sport, but it wasn’t brutal. The kids had to display sportsmanship and integrity.
“The sport supplemented the mission of the community center for her,” Mundy said. “The lessons that were taught in the classroom were reinforced on the tennis court. Her intention was always for it to be an educational facility first and a tennis facility second.”
Harris put together a committee to begin working on plans for the community center. She traveled to other facilities to see how they were running their programs. She met with her old coworkers to secure a loan.
She even traveled door to door to churches and businesses in North Philadelphia to see how they would feel about a new community tennis center in their neighborhood.
“She had so much energy and when she got an idea in her head, there was no stopping her,” Mundy said. “Her energy was so infectious that it was almost impossible to not get behind her and her mission.”
Eventually, Harris secured a location at the corner of 10th & Girard in North Philadelphia. And in 2003 , the Althea Gibson Community Education and Tennis Center opened its doors.
Harris was introduced to Melvin Reese, who was running the Bill Johnson Tennis Program in Philadelphia. Reese brought some kids to the Althea Gibson Center to hold an exhibition and soon after, he began running programming on those courts.
“She was funny about who could use her courts and who couldn’t,” Reese said. “The only people who ever played on them were kids from community organizations. Adults would come in asking to pay to use her empty courts, and she would say no. She never wavered on her vision for the center.”
That was the way it remained until the economy took a hit in late 2007-early 2008, and Harris lost a good portion of the financial backing she was receiving from large businesses and corporations. The Althea Gibson Community Education and Tennis Center closed in 2013.
Today, a Spanish community group inhabits the building that still stands at the corner of 10th & Girard. The facility is open on weekends and allows the community to get together to participate in sporting events, mainly volleyball and soccer.
Harris passed away early in 2015, but her passion for the community lives on. While her facility is no longer an education and tennis center, her dream of a place where community members can come together is still a reality.