In every sport there are trailblazers. In the world of tennis, that was Althea Gibson. A top-ranked player in the 1950s, she was the first African-American player to win in a major competition. After retiring from the court, she turned to golf, and went on to become the first black woman to play for the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
Gibson was born in Silver, South Carolina on August 25, 1927 and grew up in Harlem, New York. As a child she was a natural athlete, playing basketball and paddle tennis, but she severely disliked school, often skipping classes and eventually dropping out. In 1941, after being given a tennis racket and the gift of lessons at a tennis club by her neighbors, Gibson entered and won the New York State Championship hosted by the American Tennis Association, a predominantly black organization. It was the first of a streak of wins at ATA competitions, which garnered the attention of two tennis-loving doctors. Together they helped get her coaching, as well as back on track in school so she could graduate.
While attending and graduating from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University on an athletic scholarship, Gibson continued to play with the ATA. She won the championship 10 years in a row, causing white tennis player Alice Marble to pen an article for American Lawn Tennis calling out the sport for bigotry.
Championships and Competitions
In 1950, though, Gibson was the first black player invited to the Eastern Lawn Tennis Association Grass Court Championships – precursor to the U.S. Open – where she was winning her second match when a storm halted play. When the match resumed the following day Gibson lost. The following year she was the first black player invited to Wimbledon, but frustration at her losses created a bitter blow.
Gibson played at the elite level for several years before hitting her stride. In 1956 she won her first major event, the French championships, and also captured the women’s doubles title at Wimbledon. 1957 was the year that saw her at the top, winning both the U.S. championship event and Wimbledon’s singles tournament. For that year and the one following she was named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year. She repeated her Wimbledon single’s win in 1958, and made the choice to turn pro later that year.
Golf Career and Return to Tennis
With few tournaments for women’s pro tennis, Gibson decided to turn her skills and discipline to golf. In 1964 she joined the Ladies Professional Gold Association as the first African-American member. She failed to stand out in the field and eventually returned to tennis, teaching as a pro.
Gibson’s mark and influence on the world of tennis cannot be overstated. Through talent and hard work she broke the racial boundary at a time when the nation was just beginning to make progress in race relations, and paved the way black female athletes across all sports.
Gibson died in 2003 at the age of 76, from complications of respiratory and bladder infections, at her home in East Orange, New York.