Althea Gibson was a world renown tennis player, the first black to compete at the international level. Among her many achievements, she was the first African-American to win the Grand Slam title in the French Open in 1956 and went on in 1957 and 1958 to win both the Wimbledon and US Nationals. In the end she won 11 Grand Slam tournaments: five for singles, five for doubles, and one mixed doubles titles. She overcame numerous racial barriers, both social and structural, to become one of the best tennis players ever. Ms. Gibson also broke the racial barrier in golf, becoming the first black woman to compete professionally in golf. She inspired many other black athletes to follow in her footsteps.
Althea Gibson came from modest beginnings.
She was born the daughter of Daniel and Annie Bell Gibson. Her parents were sharecroppers on a cotton farm in Silver, South Carolina. The Great Depression hit her family hard, and in 1930 they moved to Harlem. The street she lived on was a designated area for children to play organized sports during the day, and there Ms. Gibson learned to play paddle tennis. Paddle tennis is a variation of tennis that is played on a smaller court with a solid paddle instead of netted racket. Ms. Gibson excelled at the sport. By the time she was 12, she won the New York City women’s paddle tennis championship in 1939.
Her neighbors noticed her incredible talent and in 1940 collected the funds to give her a junior membership and lessons at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club in Harlem. The following year she competed and won her first tennis tournament, the American Tennis Association (ATA) New York State Championship. She went on to win the ATA national championships for girls in 1944 and 1945. She lost in the women’s finals in 1946 and then went on to win ten straight national women’s titles from 1947 to 1956.
Walter Johnson and Hubert A. Eaton, both African-American doctors who promoted tennis in the African-American community, took interest in Althea Gibson. They sponsored and mentored her, helping her get more advanced tennis lessons and to enter more important tennis competitions. Her skill on the tennis court won her a full athletic scholarship to Florida A&M University.
Althea Gibson faced many challenges as an African-American player.
Despite her incredible skill and the fact that the United States National Championships (later called The US Open) officially prohibited racial discrimination, she was unable to earn the qualifying points needed to enter because the majority of the qualifying tournaments were held at white-only clubs. Even when she was able to compete in tournaments, many hotels were closed to her . Finally, in 1950, intense lobbying from ATA officials and retired champion Alice Marble resulted in Althea Gibson being invited to play in the Nationals on her 23rd birthday, the first African-American player to do so. While she lost to Louise Brough, who was the current Wimbledon champion and former US National Winner, her participation in the championships received considerable coverage both in the US and abroad.
In 1951, she won her first international title by winning the Caribbean Championships in Jamaica. Later that year, she also became the first black competitor at Wimbledon. In 1955, she was sent on a goodwill tour in Asia to play in exhibition matches. When that tour finished, she continued to travel abroad to play in tournaments, winning 16 out of the 18 tournaments she competed in.
In 1956 she was the first African-American to win a grand slam tournament, winning both the singles and doubles event at the French Championships. She went on to win doubles event at Wimbledon, the Italian Championships in Rome, the Indian Championships in New Delhi, and the Asian Championship. She also reached the quarterfinals in singles at Wimbledon and the finals at the US nationals.
Althea Gibson became the first black champion at Wimbledon in 1957.
She also won doubles again, and was the first champion to receive her trophy from Queen Elizabeth II. Later that year, she won her first National Championship, a win she valued even more than winning at Wimbledon. In all, in 1957, she won 8 Grand slam events.
In 1958, Ms. Gibson successfully defended both her Wimbledon and US National singles titles and won the Wimbledon doubles for the third year running. For both 1957 and 1958 She was ranked number one for women both in the US and internationally, was named the Female Athlete of the Year. She also became the first black woman to appear on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time Magazines.
Frustrated by the limited financial opportunities despite her incredible success in tournaments, in 1964, at the age of 37, Althea Gibson turned to playing professional golf.
She was the first African-American woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association. Just as she had with tennis, she encountered many racial barriers. Many hotels and country clubs were still closed to blacks and she was often not allowed to compete. Even when she could compete, she often was forced to dress in her car before the tournament. Despite her relative lack of success in golf–her highest ranking was 27th–she helped make a long term difference by opening doors onto golf courses just as she had on the tennis courts .
In the 1970s, she retired from playing professionally and became involved with supporting and promoting athletic activities, particularly in lower income, urban environments.
She participated in programs to provide athletic opportunities, particularly to poorer urban communities. She held key positions in a number of boards and programs that promoted athletics. In 1976 was the first woman appointed to serve as New Jersey’s athletic commissioner. She even ran for State Senator in 1977, though unsuccessfully.
In the late 1980s, Ms. Gibson had a couple of cerebral hemorrhages followed in 1992 with a stroke. Her medical expenses put her in dire straits. Although she reached out for assistance from tennis organizations, no one responded until her former doubles partner, Angela Buxton, made the tennis community aware of her struggles. Ms. Buxton’s efforts resulted in raising nearly $1 million from people around the world to help Ms. Gibson. In 2003, Ms. Gibson died on 28 September, at the age of 76, from complications from infections.
Her legacy lives on and she continues to be a great example of achievement and tenacity. She inspired other minority players by proving that an African-American woman, given the opportunity, could not just compete at the top level in the world, but win.
- 1951 became the first black competitor at Wimbledon
- 1951 won her first international title, the Caribbean Championships in Jamaica
- 1956 First African-American to win the Grand Slam Title in the French Championships.
- 1957 Achieved finals in 8 grand slam events. Won: Wimbledon and US National Singles, Wimbledon and Australian Doubles, and the US Mixed Doubles Crown. Finished second: Australian Singles, US Doubles, and Wimbledon Mixed doubles.
- 1958 She won Wimbledon and US National Singles, and Wimbledon doubles.
- 1964 She was the first African-American woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
Awards and Recognition
- 1957 and 1958 she was ranked the #1 woman in the world. She was named the Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press for both years.
- 1971 inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame
- 1980 One of the first 6 inductees into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame
- Inducted into the National Lawn Tennis Hall of Fame, International Scholar-Athlete Hall of Fame, the Sports Hall of Fame of New Jersey, New Jersey Hall of Fame, and the National Women’s Hall of Fame
- 1991–She was the first woman to receive the Theodore Roosevelt Award from the National Collegiate Athletic Association
- 2012–she was included on Sports Illustrated for Women list of “100 Greatest Female Athletes.”
- A number of athletic facilities were named after her. Statues in a couple of parks were also made in her honor. She has been recognized on a USPS postage stamp. PBS produced a documentary called Althea on her as part of their American Masters series in 2015