Althea Gibson, one of the greatest athletes of our times, was born on August 25, 1927 in Clarendon County, South Carolina. Gibson became the first person from the Global Majority to cross the color line in professional tennis and professional women’s golf. She was the first to win a tennis Grand Slam when in 1956 she garnered the French Open title
A graduate of Florida A&M, Gibson taught physical education and considered quitting tennis because she couldn’t make a living in the low-paying amateur days. Despite her prowess on the courts, winning the first of 10 consecutive championships of the American Tennis Association in 1947, Gibson was not invited to play in the U.S. Opens. Back then, athletes could only gain entry to the national championships by accumulating points from authorized tournaments at white-only clubs.
The racism bothered, Alice Marble, a four-time champion, who penned a letter published in the July 1950 American Lawn Tennis Magazine where she wrote: “We can accept the evasions or we can face the issue squarely and honestly. It so happens that I tan very easily in the summer, but I doubt that anyone ever questioned my right to play in the Nationals because of it.”
Marble’s letter was loud and deliberate and it sent a message that was received. On her 23rd birthday, she was allowed to compete in the 1950 U.S. Nationals. In 1955, she was tapped by the State Department for a goodwill tennis tour of Asia where she connected with British tennis star Angela Buxton. They became doubles partners and in 1956, Gibson became the first Black person to win a Grand Slam when she took both the French Open singles and women’s doubles title.
Gibson won the French Open singles against England’s Angela Mortimer, 6-0, 12-10 and she won the doubles with Buxton over Americans Darlene Hard and Dorothy Head Knode, 6-8, 8-6, 6-1.
“No one spoke to her, let alone played with her,” Buxton said. “(Gibson’s playing style) was like a young man. She hit the ball hard, even her second serve. She came charging up to the net. She bamboozled people with her attitude.”
Gibson and Buxton went on to win Wimbledon at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, but the “powers that be” were not thrilled and “you needed a spy glass to see the headline ‘Minorities Win,'” Buxton said. Both were denied membership at the All England Club despite being Wimbledon champions.
Gibson was voted Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press in 1956 and 1958. She won 11 Gran Slam titles, including five singles titles and five doubles titles and one mixed doubles title (winning the US Nationals, which would become the U.S. Open) with Danish player Kurt Nielsen in 1957).
Gibson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame and she paved the way for Venus and Serena Williams.
In the early 1960s, Gibson tried her hand at golf, becoming the first Black player to compete on the Women’s Professional Golf Tour.
Born in Silver, South Carolina, on a sharecroppers’ cotton farm, her family moved to Harlem in 1930. They lived on 143rd between Lenox and Seventh Avenues where she picked up sports at The Police Athletic League nearby. She became really good at paddle tennis and in 1939 at 12, Gibson won the New York City women’s paddle tennis championship.
In 1940, a group of Gibson’s neighbors took up a collection to pay for her junior membership and lessons at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club in Sugar Hill. In 1941, she won her first tournament, the American Tennis Association New York State Championship, which she also won in 1944 and 1945. She won 10 straight ATA titles in 1947.
“I knew that I was an unusual, talented girl, through the grace of God,” Gibson said. “I didn’t need to prove that to myself. I only wanted to prove it to my opponents.
Gibson’s golf career wasn’t as remarkable as her tennis career, but she did break course records during individual rounds in several tournaments. She tied for second after a three-way playoff at the 1970 Len Immke Buick Open. She retired from professional golf at the end of the 1978 season (her highest ranking was No. 27 in 1966).
“Althea might have been a real player of consequence had she started when she was young,” said Judy Rankin, golf great and a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. “She came along during a difficult time in golf, gained the support of a lot of people, and quietly made a difference.”
Gibson, who lived her later years in East Orange, New Jersey, died September 28, 2003, from complications following respiratory and bladder infections. Her body was interred in the Rosedale Cemetery in Orange, New Jersey.
The city of East Orange dedicated a park in her name (formerly Soverel Park) on August 23, 2019. The 2019 U.S. Open has also unveiled a memorial dedicated to Althea Gibson’s contribution to tennis.