Althea Gibson was born in August 1927 in South Carolina where her parents worked on a cotton farm. When the Great Depression struck, Althea’s family, like many others across the country, were hit hard. In 1930 they packed up and moved north to Harlem. Once there her family weren’t wealthy and relied on benefits to get by.
Sport became an outlet for Althea and she learned to play paddle tennis. By the time she was 12 she was New York City’s women’s paddle tennis champion. Seeing how good she was her close knit community got together and raised enough money to pay for her membership at a local tennis club where she would receive professional tennis lessons. That was in 1940; by 1941 she had entered and won her first tournament; a New York Championship put on by the American Tennis Association (ATA). The ATA was set up for black tennis players, who at that time were not allowed to compete in ‘mainstream’ tennis championships because of segregation.
After her first win Althea just kept on going. In 1944 she won the ATA’s National Championships; then again in 1945 and after a slight blip in 1946 she went on to win ten times in a row from 1947-1956!
Throughout this time things changed a lot for Althea; she gained a name for herself as a serious tennis player and was able to access much better training. In 1949 she became the first black woman (and only the second person of colour ever) to compete in the United States Tennis Association’s (USTA) National Indoor Championships.
However access to USTA ‘Grand Slam‘ games was still blocked to African-Americans. In 1950 a fellow shero tennis player called Alice Marble wrote a letter that was published in the American Lawn Tennis Magazine demanding that someone of such obvious talent as Althea be allowed to play:
“Miss Gibson is over a very cunningly wrought barrel, and I can only hope to loosen a few of its staves with one lone opinion. If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentle-people and less like sanctimonious hypocrites…. If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts.”
In response Althea was allowed to enter the US National Championships, becoming the first African-American player, male or female, to enter a Grand Slam event! More firsts quickly followed; in 1951 Althea became the first black competitor at Wimbledon and a few years later in 1956 she won the French Open making her the first black person to win a Grand Slam event.
She was by this time playing full-time in matches all around the world. In 1957 she returned to Wimbledon, this time winning the tournament – the first black champion in its entire history! She was presented her trophy by none other than Queen Elizabeth II. Reflecting on this moment Althea said “Shaking hands with the queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus.”
By 1958, it’s no surprise that she was ranked the number one female tennis player in the world! The same year notched up another first when she appeared on the front covers of Sports Illustrated and Time magazine – the first black woman to appear on either.
Despite all these firsts and the sheer inspiration she was to huge numbers of people who saw her breaking through entrenched racial barriers, Althea herself never claimed to be doing it for that reason:
“I have never regarded myself as a crusader, I don’t consciously beat the drums for any cause, not even the negro in the United States.”
Never-the-less her actions spoke volumes and the obstacles she overcame to reach success paved the way for others to follow.
Her tennis career continued to be successful, but while at times she did win prize money, in the long term it wasn’t enough to sustain her. Alongside tennis she also proved herself a talented musician. In 1959 she recorded an album of jazz standards and even appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show to perform hits from her record. She also acted alongside John Wayne in the film The Horse Soldiers. However, when it came to tennis things were faltering. She said,
“When I looked around me, I saw that white tennis players, some of whom I had thrashed on the court, were picking up offers and invitations. Suddenly it dawned on me that my triumphs had not destroyed the racial barrier once and for all, as I had—perhaps naively—hoped. Or if I did destroy them, they had been erected behind me again.”
Perhaps it was this that led her in 1964 to diversify her sporting prowess, putting down her tennis racket and picking up a golf club! Once again breaking new ground she became the first black woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour. Sadly, the world of golfing proved to be even less progressive than that of tennis, with segregation still a brutal reality. Some hotels refused to accommodate people of colour, clubs would refuse to let her play, and at those who did sometimes the clubhouses would refuse to let Althea enter, meaning she had to change for the games in her car!
As her sporting career dwindled Althea found a place in coaching and in local politics, managing the Department of Recreation in New Jersey amongst other positions.
Towards the end of her life Althea suffered a stroke. Despite the many accolades and successes she had achieved throughout her life she didn’t have enough money to pay for her treatment, or even for her rent. The tennis community which she had once been part of stepped in, led by her old doubles partner Angela Buxton, and raised the money which was needed. A few years later, in 2003 at the age of 76 this great shero of firsts passed away.
Despite her own reluctance to become a figurehead for a social movement she greatly inspired those fighting for civil rights both on and off the court. She inspired not only the black community as she smashed through barriers taking ‘first’ after ‘first’, but also other female players like Billie Jean King who said,
“I saw Althea Gibson play for the first time when I was 13. Because she was already one of my ‘she-roes’ I was very excited”
Today two of the most famous female tennis players, Serena and Venus Williams, happen to be black. They are also the first female black players since Althea to win at the US Open & Wimbledon (respectively). When Serena Williams won the US Open in 1999 she said,
“One of her friends told me she [Althea] wanted to see another African American win a Slam before her time is up, I’m so excited that I had a chance to accomplish that while she’s still alive.”
The sisters have often acknowledged the path that was paved for them by Althea;
“I have all the opportunities today because of people like Althea,” Venus Williams said, “Just trying to follow in her footsteps.”
Althea has been honoured in all sorts of ways for her contribution. She was admitted to the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame and the International Tennis Hall of Fame, has appeared on a US postage stamp and on a Google doodle!
Find out more…
There has recently been a documentary made about Althea’s life. Find out more and watch the trailer here.
You can see Althea playing her first US National Championships match at Forest Hills in this video (p.s. there are loads more videos of and about Althea on YouTube if you have a look!)