"It's ironic that the first black female athlete to gain and hold world dominance did so in a sport that featured relatively little black participation."--Arthur Ashe
Althea Gibson emerged onto the tennis stage at a time when it was still considered a "lily-white" sport. Her career began in 1950 when at 23-years-old she was permitted to play in the U.S. Nationals at Forest Hills, becoming the first African-American to do so. By 1956, she became the first black player to a Grand Slam event, taking the French Open title in singles and doubles. The next year in 1957, she again broke barriers, winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals. The first African-American to do so. She ended that year as the world's undisputed number one female player. But her career successes, hides the struggle it took for her to it make into the tennis world.
The Early Years
Born in Silver, South Carolina in 1927, Gibson was a typical tomboy. Growing up in Harlem, New York, she displayed her athletic prowess in pool halls, bowling alleys, and on basketball courts. At the age of 13, Gibson received her first tennis racket and one year later won her first tournament in the American Tennis Association--the governing body for black tournaments. In 1946, Gibson lost in the ATA Nationals, but attracted the attention of two doctors who would change her life-- Hubert Eaton and Walter Johnson--both active in the black tennis community. Because of her early successes, Gibson was regarded as one who could break into white tennis world. However, she had never graduated high school. Under advice from boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, Gibson accepted the offer from the two physicians to live with them while she completed her education. She graduated high school in 1949 (Sugar Ray Robinson paid for her class ring) and eventually won 10 consecutive ATA National titles. As a multiple winner of the national black women's championship, Gibson and Walter Johnson lobbied the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (USTA) to play in the U.S. Nationals. Not wanting to be accussed of lagging behing the gains made by Jackie Robinson in baseball three years before, the white tennis body agreed, but not before Alice Marble a white USLTA player pleaded on her behalf. In a stirring letter Marble challenged the USLTA to stop wavering and allow Gibson to particpate. Excerpts from Marble's letter.
Breaking Down the Barriers
Once playing on the USLTA Gibson not only had to adjust to the strong competition but to racism as well. She was not welcomed at some clubs where important tournaments were played. Still, she defied the odds. The 5-foot-11 Gibson, was a big-hitter, with a strong serve and was extremely athletic. She won her first major at the French Open in 1956, making her the first African-American to do so. One year later, she gained control of the women's game winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals, ending the year ranked number one. But even while winning tournaments she was denied rooms at hotels and was still not able to play in some tournaments. Still she continued playing. She was criticized by some black writers for not being aggressive on the issue of racial equality. In response, Gibson complained of "being Public Enemy No. 1 to some sections of the negro press..they say I'm bigheadded, uppity, and ungrateful...". In her 1958 book Gibson said, "I am not a racially conscious person. I don't want to be. I see myself as just an individual." Gibson would later go on to win 11 major titles in singles and doubles. And in 1957 and 1958 she was voted by the Associated Press as it's Female Athlete of the Year--also a first for a black female athlete. Finding that she was not making an adequate living as an amateur, Gibson turned pro in 1958. One year she earned a reported $100,000 in conjunction with playing a series of matches before Harlem Globetrotter basketball games. But there was no professional game in tennis for women then, and she turned to the pro golf tour for a few years. She worked as a tennis teaching pro after she stopped competing.
Today, Althea Gibson lives a secluded life away from the public in New Jersey. She is said to be suffering in silence from a series of strokes and ailments brought on from a terminal disease. Those close to her say she stays out of the public eye mainly because she doen't remember much of her matches from the 1950s and she can't view them because none of her matches are on film. Nevertheless, Gibson's legacy still lives on. Tennis great Billie Jean King says of Gibson, "If it hadn't been for her, it wouldn't have been so easy for Arthur Ashe or the ones who followed." Ashe, like Gibson, was also a trailblazer in the world of tennis.