Althea Gibson (1927-2003), “Unlikely Champion” of Tennis
- First player to break color barrier in tennis
- Won 56 tennis tournaments, including five Grand Slam singles titles
- First African-American Wimbledon champion and first African-American to enter and win the championship at Forest Hills
Althea Gibson was born in Silver, South Carolina in 1927 but she grew up in Harlem where her family moved when she was very young. She was an unlikely tennis champ not only because of her color but because her background can only be described as rough-and-tumble.
New York Times reporter Robert McG. Thomas Jr. wrote in 2003 that Gibson was “a rough-hewn product of the New York slums, a street-brawling chronic truant and eighth-grade dropout who haunted pool halls and bowling lanes and made the back alleys her home.”
She was also a natural athlete and was successful at whatever she played. Her first sport was paddle tennis; she played in public recreation programs and won a championship at age 12. Musician Buddy Walker noticed her skills, and thought she might do well in tennis. He brought her to the Harlem River Tennis Courts, where she learned the game and began to excel.
By 1942 Gibson had won the girls’ singles event at the American Tennis Association’s New York State Tournament. (The ATA was an all-black organization, providing tournament opportunities not otherwise available to African-American tennis players.) In 1944 and 1945 she again won ATA tournaments.
Gibson’s strong serve, fast pace and dominant court presence caught the attention of two African-American doctors who were intent on breaking the color barrier in tennis: Hubert Eaton of North Carolina and Robert W. Johnson of Virginia. The men wanted Gibson to finish high school and also settle in to a regular practice routine. They arranged for her to live with Eaton’s family where she attended the local high school and took tennis lessons. During the summer Johnson toured with her while she played tournaments. (Johnson also sponsored Arthur Ashe a good number of years later.)
Gibson continued winning in the ATA (1947-56) but other tennis tournaments remained closed to her until 1950. In that year white tennis player Alice Marble wrote an article in American Lawn Tennis magazine, noting that this excellent player was not able to participate in the better-known championships, for no reason other than bigotry: “If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of players then it’s only fair that they meet this challenge on the courts.”
The U.S. Lawn Association relented, and Gibson was allowed to play. She was an inconsistent player in these years, so while she played some stand-out matches, championships still eluded her. Then in 1956 she won her first championship in France and in 1957 she won the U.S. Nationals. That year the Associated Press voted her Female Athlete of the Year, the first African-American woman to receive that honor.
In the late 1950s, Gibson won eleven major titles including three straight doubles at the French Open in 1956, 1957 and 1958. She was winner of the French Open in 1956, Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958 and the U.S. Open in both those years as well.
She later wrote in her book of the Wimbledon: “Shaking hands with the Queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus going into downtown Wilmington, N.C.”
As with Jackie Robinson in baseball, Gibson won tournaments but in many cities, she was denied hotel rooms. One restaurant refused to book a luncheon in her honor.
In 1958 she retired from amateur tennis. In that day there was no prize money (other than an expense allowance) no endorsement deals, and no professional tour for women. Gibson was limited to play in a series of exhibition tours.
In 1971 she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
In 1963, Gibson switched her concentration to golf. That year, she became the first African-American woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association, where she remained a member for fifteen years. Though she had a strong swing, she was old for picking up a new sport, and her best tournament finish was second place.
In 1975, Althea Gibson was named the New Jersey Commissioner of Athletics. She held this position for ten years and also served on both the State’s Athletics Control Board and the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness.
In 1992 Gibson suffered severe health issues and faced financial problems trying to pay for her medical care. Her former doubles partner, Angela Buxton, wrote a letter that appeared in a tennis magazine asking for help for her friend. There was an outpouring of support, and Gibson received more than $1 million in donations from around the world.
Althea Gibson died in 2003 at the age of 76.
In 1998 a foundation was created in her honor, and it still exists today to raise money to help identify and support gifted golf or tennis players who live in urban environments.