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 Gibsons 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
"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
For ten consecutive years, Althea won the ATA women's singles
tournament. Unfortunately, she couldnt play in white
tournaments until 1950 when a white tennis player, Alice Marble,
published an article in American Lawn Tennis magazine,
arguing that Althea wasnt 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.