Althea Neale Gibson’s contributions to the civil rights movement were done with a tennis racquet.
Born in Silver, South Carolina, on this date in 1927, she was the oldest of Daniel and Annie Bell Gibson’s five children. When Althea was three, the family left their life as sharecroppers on a cotton farm and moved to Harlem, where they lived on public assistance. Althea excelled in every sport she played, including paddle tennis, becoming the New York City women’s champion at 12. Musician Buddy Walker saw her talent and, in 1941, invited her to play tennis at the Harlem River Tennis Courts. One year later, she entered and won her first tournament, the American Tennis Association [ATA] New York State Championship. The ATA was an African-American organization established to stage and promote tennis tournaments for black players, and Gibson won the national championship in the girls’ division in 1944 and 1945. Uninterested in academics, she quit high school but was convinced by Sugar Ray Robinson and his wife—who had befriended her in Harlem—to head to Virginia, where she was taken in by the “godfather of black tennis,” Dr. Walter Johnson. Johnson, who would later mentor Arthur Ashe [Daily Dose, 9/8/15], ran a free tennis camp for African-American children. Gibson enrolled at Williston Industrial High School—alma mater of Meadowlark Lemon [Daily Dose, 4/25/16]—and graduated in 1946. After losing in the women’s final of the ATA Championships later that year, she won her first of ten straight national ATA titles in 1947.
Gibson accepted a basketball and tennis scholarship to Florida A&M University yet could not gain entry into the segregated world of tennis. By 1947, Jackie Robinson [Daily Dose, 4/15/16] had broken the color barrier in baseball, yet no black was permitted to play tennis at the U.S. National Championships [now U.S. Open]. Former U.S. National champion Alice Marble lobbied vigorously for Gibson’s inclusion in the U.S. event. “If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of players,” Marble wrote in American Lawn Tennis magazine, “then it’s only fair that they meet this challenge on the courts.” On this date in 1950, Althea Gibson became the first black tennis player to compete at the U.S. National Championships. At America’s biggest tennis event, the 23-year-old Gibson advanced to the second round. The following year, she became the first African-American to compete at Wimbledon. By the time she graduated from Florida A&M in 1953, she was the seventh-ranked player in the country. In 1956, Miss Gibson won the singles and doubles titles at the French Open [Daily Dose, 5/26/16], becoming the first black to win a Grand Slam title. Nineteen fifty-seven was, in her own words, “Althea Gibson’s year.” In July, she won Wimbledon to become the first black champion in the tournament’s 80-year history and first to receive the trophy personally from Queen Elizabeth II. “Shaking hands with the Queen of England,” she said, “was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus.” She went on to defeat Louise Brough to win the U.S. Nationals, which led to a ticker tape parade down Broadway in New York City. “The girl who was playing paddle tennis on the streets of Harlem some 15 years ago found herself, at the age of 30, at the pinnacle of tennisdom,” wrote the New York Times. Gibson continued achieving “firsts,” including becoming the first African-American to grace the cover of Time and Sports Illustrated magazines, while the Associated Press named her Female Athlete of the Year. After repeating as Wimbledon and U.S. National Champion the following year, Gibson was again named AP Female Athlete of the Year.
Late in 1958, having won 56 national and international single and doubles titles and having gone 53-9 at the majors, Althea Gibson retired from amateur tennis. Prior to the Open Era , there was no prize money or endorsement deals in tennis. She signed a $100,000 contract to play a series of matches before Harlem Globetrotter games. In 1960, she took up golf and, four years later, became the first black player on the LPGA Tour but had little success in golf.
As a tennis player, Althea Gibson was rangy, athletic, and had good foot speed, allowing her to cover the court. She used her 5’11” height to her service advantage and played an attacking style. “She is one of the greatest tennis players who ever lived,” said Robert Ryland, former coach of Venus and Serena Williams. “Martina couldn’t touch her. I think she’d beat the Williams sisters.” Between 1956 and 1958, Miss Gibson appeared in 19 major finals and won eleven. It took 43 years, when Serena Williams [Daily Dose, 7/5/16] won the 1999 U.S. Open, for another African-American to win a major singles title. “I am honored to have followed in such great footsteps,” wrote Williams, “her accomplishments set the stage for my success.” In 1971, Althea Gibson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She died September 28, 2003, of complications following a heart attack. Althea Gibson was 76.