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Sports in American Popular Culture
 SportSass: Who Was Althea Gibson?

I told my husband that Althea Gibson had died last Sunday, and he asked me, “Who was Althea Gibson?” How unfortunate, I thought, that the accomplishments of someone so important to the current architecture of our society could be forgotten, unlauded. Without Althea Gibson’s shoulders to stand on, Venus, Serena, and Tiger might very well find themselves in all black competitions, as Althea first was.

Years before Arthur Ashe appeared on the international tennis radar, Althea Gibson stepped on the courts at Wimbledon. The year was 1951, and she was the first African-American woman to do so. Not only did she hurdle the wall of racism, she hurdled the wall of sexism as well.

A few years later, she began to win major tournaments, including the Wimbledon and U.S. championships in 1957 and 1958, the French Open, and three Wimbledon doubles titles,1956-58. She was named Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year in 1957 and 1958. Following the 1957 Wimbledon victory, she received a ticker-tape parade in New York City and an official welcome at City Hall. No other black woman took home the U.S. national tennis title until Serena Williams in 1999 or conquered Wimbledon until Venus Williams in 2000.

Venus said of Althea, “Her accomplishments set the stage for my success, and through players like myself, Serena, and many others to come, her legacy will live on.”

"Who could have imagined? Who could have thought?" Gibson asked in 1988 when she donated her Wimbledon trophies to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.

"Here stands before you a Negro woman, raised in Harlem, who went on to become a tennis player...and finally winds up being a world champion, in fact, the first black woman champion of this world. And believe it or not, I still am."

Althea was born to sharecroppers on a cotton farm in South Carolina and raised in Harlem. She began playing while growing up in New York, hitting rubber balls off a brick wall. She also played paddle tennis in public recreation programs, winning tournaments sponsored by the Police Athletics Leagues and the Parks Department.

A prominent musician saw her table tennis expertise and brought her to the Harlem River Tennis Courts. Raising donations for her membership, she became a member of the Harlem Cosmopolitan Tennis Club, a club for African American players. There she met Fred Johnson, a one-armed tennis coach who taught her to play. At just fifteen, Althea won her first tournament, becoming the New York State black girls' singles tennis champion.

In 1953, she graduated from Florida A&M on an athletic scholarship and started working as an athletic instructor at Lincoln University in Mississippi. She also joined the American Tennis Association, founded for African-American players.

For ten consecutive years, Althea won the ATA women's singles tournament. Unfortunately, she couldn’t play in white tournaments until 1950 when a white tennis player, Alice Marble, published an article in American Lawn Tennis magazine, arguing that Althea wasn’t able to participate because of bigotry. After such publicity, she was allowed to play in the National Grass Court Tennis Championships, an early version of today's U.S. Open.

Venus Williams commented after her own U.S. Open debut, "For players like myself and a lot of other African-American players on the tour, Althea Gibson paved the way for us, so it's important that we recognize this, that I recognize it, and for me to know my history. "

Later, in 2000, Venus said, "I knew she was watching when Serena won the U.S. Open and she's happy to see another black woman win in her lifetime."

She retired from the game soon after her 1958 Wimbledon and U.S. titles, and wrote her autobiography. There was no professional women's tennis circuit at the time; Gibson received no money and no lucrative endorsements. "If she had been a half-step later (in her tennis career), she would have been a multimillionaire," rued friend and former mayor of New York David Dinkins.

She cut an album (yep, she tried singing) then made a $100,000 deal to play exhibition tennis before Globetrotter games. Althea then became the first black woman on the LPGA tour, but won no tournaments and earned little money.

Inducted into numerous halls of fame, she became the state commissioner of athletics in New Jersey in 1975, a member of the state athletics control board until 1988, and a member of the governor's council on physical fitness until 1992. She also ran a foundation to introduce inner city kids to the joys of golf and tennis. Donations can still be made at

Of Althea, Billie Jean King said, “We all know people who influence us and, if we are lucky, we meet a few in our lives who improve us. Althea Gibson improved my life and the lives of countless others. She was the first to break so many barriers and from the first time I saw her play, when I was thirteen-years-old, she became, and remained, one of my true heroines. It was truly an inspiration for me to watch her overcome adversity. Her road to success was a challenging one, but I never saw her back down. Althea did a lot for people in tennis, but she did even more for people in general.”

So who was Althea Gibson?

Probably more than we could ever really comprehend.

October 2003

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