Althea GibsonAug 4th, 2010 | By BHS | Category: Sports
1927-2003 Althea Gibson’s athletic prowess led to her recognition as an outstanding professional tennis player. In an era of extreme racial segregation, she triumphed over humble beginnings to become the first African American to enter and earn titles at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon championships. She also was the first Black to play in the Ladies Professional Golf Association. Her name graces numerous Halls of Fame and she is the recipient of many significant athletic distinctions.
From Welfare to Wimbledon
Born to disadvantaged parents in the modest town of Silver, South Carolina, in August 1927, Gibson spent her formative years in Harlem after the family moved to New York City. She disliked academics, often skipped classes, and eventually dropped out of high school. But even as a teenager, Gibson showed a penchant for athletics, and particularly table tennis. While she also excelled in basketball and golf, she showed the greatest promise with a racket in her hand. After she had won numerous paddle tournaments, a musician named Buddy Walker took note of Gibson’s skill and introduced her to the Harlem Cosmopolitan Tennis Club. There, supported by donations, she studied her sport.
At the tender of age 15, Gibson emerged victorious in a state-wide tournament sanctioned by the American Tennis Association (ATA), an African American organization that offered opportunities for black tennis players who were excluded from mainstream sports. Gibson won the national title from the ATA in 1944 and again in 1945. Private tennis lessons and an opportunity to resume her high school education and attend college came through the generous support of two physicians and tennis fans, Hubert Eaton of North Carolina and Robert Walter Johnson of Virginia. Gibson left New York to board at Eaton’s home while finishing high school, and secured several mixed doubles championships in partnership with Johnson. She went on to graduate from Florida A&M University in 1953 on a tennis and basketball scholarship. Johnson would later help launch the career of Arthur Ashe, another renowned African American tennis player.
In 1950, Alice Marble, a white tennis player and former Wimbledon champion, wrote an editorial in American Lawn Tennis urging an end to segregated tournaments. Marble claimed that exceptional players, and Gibson specifically, were being excluded from the more prestigious tournaments simply because of race. The story drew attention and after publication, Gibson became the first African American to enter the U.S. Championships in Forest Hills, Queens, New York, the first in a series of opportunities that would lead Gibson all the way to Wimbledon.
A Host of Distinctions
Following this breakthrough, Gibson’s career soared, earning her numerous distinctions and notoriety within the professional tennis community and in the lives of other African Americans. Her first appearance at the U.S. Nationals in 1950 was a historic victory against player Barbara Knapp, with a 6-2, 6-2 win. Following this, she experienced a near triumph against Louise Brough, who held the title of three-time Wimbledon champion. Gibson came within one game of beating the champ, but in the third set, a thunderstorm halted the match. When the game resumed the next day, Gibson was defeated.
Despite becoming the first African American of any gender to compete at Wimbledon in 1951, Gibson struggled to make a living playing tennis, strictly an amateur sport at the time. After teaching for a time in Missouri, she began training with a new coach, Sydney Llewellyn. The two embarked on a tour of Asia, showcasing Gibson’s skills as part of a Department of State goodwill effort in the region. On their return, her competitive flame was burning bright.
In 1956, she triumphed over the defending champion, Angela Mortimer, at the French Championships in Paris. She also made her mark in the French doubles game alongside Angela Buxton, and then repeated that victory at Wimbledon. That same year also brought wins in Italian, Pacific South West, New South Wales, Pan American, South Australian, and Asian tournaments. Then in 1957, having lost the Australian Open finals to Shirley Fry, Gibson paired up with Fry for a doubles tournament at Wimbledon and won. The public was so enamored of the five-foot eleven-inch tennis champ that New York City threw Gibson a ticker tape parade.
Gibson’s career included a total of 11 major wins, a remarkable record for an African American woman of the era. After being rated the number one tennis player domestically and internationally, her career quieted, but not before she captured 114 out of 118 wins in exhibition bouts prior to Harlem Globetrotters basketball games, an arrangement that earned Gibson the celebrity sum of $100,000. By the late 1960s, she had turned her attention toward teaching younger tennis hopefuls. She also revisited her golf aspirations, becoming the first Black to play in the Ladies Professional Golf Association in 1964. In 1971, at the age of 44, Gibson was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame, and her tennis racket took a back seat. She was appointed the New Jersey State Athletic Commissioner in 1975 and served on the governor’s council of athletics.
Gibson’s commanding height, strength, and impressive serve catapulted her into the big leagues; her resolve and determination carried her to victory and to success in other areas, including writing her autobiography, I Always Wanted to be a Somebody, recording her own album, Althea Gibson Sings, and appearing in various films. In September of 2003, at the age of 76, Gibson succumbed to respiratory failure while living in East Orange, New Jersey. She is remembered for her critical contribution to breaking the color line in sports.