Born on August 25, 1927, South Carolina native Althea Gibson, her parents, Daniel, and Anna Washington Gibson. Including five siblings lived in a neighborhood in the borough of New York City known as Harlem.
To say her childhood was a struggle is an understatement. Not only did her parents work on a cotton farm to make ends meet. But, she also was an unruly child who often ran away from home and missed school.
Nonetheless, strict as her father was, he taught her boxing. At that time Harlem was a rough neighborhood, and Althea was often involved in fights.
Because she spent her time hanging out at public recreation buildings playing table tennis. It was musician Buddy Walker, who thought that her skills would do well in tennis. Furthermore, he took her to the Harlem River Tennis Courts, where she began to practice.
Later, the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club took notice. Her, talent not only funded her a membership. But, also covered the expenses for her tennis lessons thanks to Fred Johnson.
Just the beginning… Althea’s Amateur Career
1942 is the year Althea Gibsons amateur tennis career was born. After winning the girls’ singles event against other African Americans at the American Tennis Association’s Tournament in New York. Althea repeated her victory in 1944 and 1945.
With the support of two African-American physicians, Dr. Hubert Eaton, and Dr. Walter Johnson. Again, not only paid all of her expenses. But, also taught her the rules of living in a middle-class family as well as the etiquette of tennis.
At the time, Althea resided in Lynchburg, Virginia with Dr. Johnson’s family during the summers. Also, attended Williston High School while playing tennis at the American Tennis Association and traveling to tournaments with her sponsor.
During this time, Althea managed to complete high school. Then went ahead to graduate from the Florida A & M University in Tallahassee on a sports scholarship in 1953.
Much of the tennis world was closed off to Althea. This was due to tennis being a white-dominated, white-managed sport in the U.S. Althea came close to leaving the game to join the Army
Her success at the ATA tournaments is what compelled a former tennis No. 1 player, Alice Marble to write an article in the “American Lawn Tennis” magazine. Against denying Gibson to compete in the world’s tennis tournaments.
It wasn’t until July 1950 that the USLTA finally allowed Althea Gibson to play against white women players in tennis in the U.S. Nationals.
She consequently, defeated Barbara Knapp in straight sets. Then went against Louise Brough on the grass of Forest Hills, who notably, had won three previous Wimbledon matches.
To date, Althea is regarded as the first African-American tennis player to compete at the U.S. National Championships in 1950.
Then went ahead to win the French in 1956, Wimbledon between 1957 to 1958 as well as the U.S Open singles championships the same year.
Gibson also won the U.S. mixed doubles and the Australian women’s doubles in 1957. As well as become the first African American to be voted Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press.
The unfortunate part…Gibson only started to make money in 1960. Althea’s real income came from getting paid $100,000 for playing a series of matches before Harlem Globetrotter games.
Side Note: Even though she never won. Althea, yet again made history as the first African-American woman to ever compete in a pro golf tour.
Following her 1958 victory at the U.S. Nationals. One of fifty-six national and international singles and doubles titles, including eleven Grand Slam championships. Althea retired from tennis and also published a book called “I Always Wanted to Be Somebody”.
Unfortunately, with all her success, retirement was marred with hardships. Not only did she suffer a stroke and develope serious heart problems. Also almost going broke until her friends, and former tennis player, the great Bille Jean King came to her aid.
Sadly, Althea died of respiratory failure in East Orange, New Jersey on September 28, 2003
Althea Gibson is commemorated at Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and US Open, as an icon and hero, who changed the face of history. Becoming the first African American woman named Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press.
Her success was unparalleled, from winning the National Black Women’s Championship. Then competing against players, regardless of the color of their skin.
Furthermore, being inducted into the International Women’s Sports Halls of Fame, and the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
This legendary woman voted Sports Illustrated Top 100 Greatest Female Athletes – Althea Gibson. Who’s story went on to break the barriers of sports, will motivate upcoming tennis athletes around the world. To learn from a trailblazer who, against all odds climbed the top of a highly segregated sport.
While her story is both extraordinary and tragic at the end when she was forgotten by the ‘Tennis Establishment’. Her lifetime achievements transcend sports, she remained true to her convictions as a strong, inspiring and uncompromising woman.