Althea Gibson is a woman of many firsts. She become the first black athlete-male or female-allowed into United States Lawn Tennis Association tournaments. She was the first African American to win a Wimbledon singles title, the first to play at the U.S. Open in Forest Hills, N.Y., and the first to play in the French Open. Her remarkable career spanned almost twenty years, yielding nearly 100 professional title including five Grand Slam crowns. After her retirement from tennis competition in 1958, she tried her hand at golf and became the first African-American to earn an LPGA card.
In 1927, Althea Gibson was born to sharecroppers, on a cotton farm in Silver, South Carolina. At age three, her family moved to Harlem, New York City. She began playing paddle tennis in public recreation programs, then began winning tournaments, sponsored by the Police Athletic Leagues and the Parks Department. PAL coach Buddy Walker noticed her talent and interest and though she might do well in tennis. He brought her to the Harlem River Tennis Courts, where she learned and excelled in the game. A school teacher introduced her to Harlem’s exclusive Cosmopolitan Tennis Club where prominent blacks chipped in to provide her a junior membership and lessons by the club professional.
Ms. Gibson won the New York State championship six times from 1944-1950. For seven consecutive years she was the number one player in the American Tennis Association, the nation’s oldest African-American sports organization. Ms. Gibson was observed in 1946 by two black surgeons, both leaders in the ATA. Dr. Hubert Eaton of Wilmington, N.C. was one of these men. He saw promise in the young woman and recommended that she seek a tennis scholarship at a black college, only to learn that she had never been to high school.
It was arranged for Althea to live with Dr. Eaton’s family. She attended Williston High School and trained privately on the regulation size tennis court, at Dr. Eaton’s Orange Street home. Ms. Gibson graduated from Williston and went onto earn her degree from Florida A&M University.
Althea Gibson dominated the black tennis circuit, while trying to break into the all-white world of the USLTA, but was denied entry every time. Outside of the ATA, tennis tournaments remained closed to Ms. Gibson, until 1950. In that year, Ms. Gibson played at Forest Hills and won the first U.S. Open match involving an African American Athlete.
In 1957 Ms. Gibson won both the women’s single and doubles at Wimbledon. In celebration of this American win-and her achievement as an African American-New York City greeted her with a tickertape parade. Gibson followed up with a win at Forest Hills in the women’s single tournament and in that same year, the Associated Press named her Woman Athlete of the Year. In 1958, she repeated the feat, reigning as both Wimbledon and U.S. National Tennis Champion.
Ms. Gibson, one of the best and most significant athletes of our time, paved the road for blacks in tennis. She was named to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971, the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1980, and the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1974.