Pioneering athlete Althea Gibson became the first major African-American player in women’s tennis. Raised primarily in the Harlem neighborhood of New York, she won a series of American Tennis Association titles on the African-American circuit. After being allowed to compete in major tournaments, she became the first black player to win Wimbledon as well as the French Open and US Open titles. Gibson turned professional in 1959 and made history by becoming the first African-American competitor on the women’s professional golf circuit in the 1960s. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971 and then was New Jersey State Athletic Commissioner.
Althea Gibson blazed a new trail in the sport of tennis, winning some of the sport’s biggest titles in the 1950s and becoming the game’s first black champion. She grew up primarily in the Harlem neighborhood of New York, where Gibson and her family moved when she was young, her life was difficult. His family lived on public assistance for a time. Gibson also struggled in class and often skipped school, but enjoyed playing sports, especially ping pong. After winning several tournaments hosted by the local recreation department, Gibson discovered the Harlem River tennis courts in 1941. Incredibly, just a year after first purchasing a racquet, Gibson won a local tournament sponsored by the American Tennis Association. an African-American organization created to promote and sponsor tournaments for black players. For Gibson, two more ATA titles followed in 1944 and 1945. After losing a title in 1946, Gibson won 10 consecutive championships from 1947 to 1956.
Gibson’s success at these ATA tournaments paved the way for him to attend college on an athletic scholarship. She graduated from the school in 1953, but struggled to get by. At one point, she even considered leaving the sport to join the U.S. Army. Much of his frustration had to do with the fact that much of the tennis world was closed to him. The sport, dominated and managed by white people, was segregated in the United States in much the same way as the world around it. The breaking point came in 1950 when Alice Mable, herself a former tennis number one, wrote an article in American Lawn Tennis magazine castigating her sport for denying a player of Gibson’s caliber entry to top tournaments. of the world. Mable’s article gained attention and in 1951, Gibson made history when she became the first African American ever invited to play at Wimbledon. A year later, it made the Top 10 in the United States. She then climbed even higher, reaching 7th place in 1953.
In 1955, Gibson and her game were sponsored by the United States Lawn Tennis Association, which sent her around the world on a State Department tour that saw her compete in countries including India, the Pakistan and Burma. Standing 5 feet 11 inches tall and possessing exceptional power and athletic skills, Gibson seemed destined for bigger victories. In 1956, it all came together when she won the French Open. Wimbledon and USOpen titles followed in 1957 and 1958. In total, Gibson worked her way to 56 singles and doubles championships before turning professional in 1959.
However, for her part, Gibson downplayed her pioneering role. “I never considered myself a crusader,” she said in her 1958 autobiography: I always wanted to be someone. “I do not consciously beat the drum for any cause, not even for Negroes in the United States.”
As a professional, Gibson continued to win (she captured the singles title in 1960) but, just as importantly, she started making money. She reportedly received $100,000 for playing a series of matches before Harlem Globetrotter games. Also for a short time, the talented Gibson played on the professional golf circuit. But failing to win on the course as she had on the courts, she eventually returned to tennis. In 1968, with the advent of the Open era of tennis, Gibson attempted to repeat his past successes. However, she was too old and too slow to keep up with her younger counterparts.
After her retirement, Althea Gibson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971. However, she remained connected to the sport through a number of service positions. Starting in 1975, she served for 10 years as the state sports commissioner of New Jersey. She was also a member of the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness.
But just like his early childhood, Gibson’s later years were dominated by hardship. She nearly went bankrupt before former tennis great Billy Jean King and others stepped in to help. His health also deteriorated. She suffered a stroke and developed serious heart problems. On September 28, 2003, Gibson died of respiratory failure in East Orange, New Jersey.
Biography courtesy of BIO.com