On this day in 1957, Althea Gibson claimed the women’s singles tennis title at Wimbledon and became the first African American to win a championship at London’s All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Gibson also won the women’s doubles championship later in the day.
Althea Gibson, born in 1927 in South Carolina, grew up in the Harlem section of New York City. Gibson’s athletic ability set her apart from her peers, and she drew even more attention to herself when she won the Police Athletic League and Parks Department paddle tennis competitions. The recreation director and musician Buddy Walker recognized her talent, purchased rackets, and took her to the Harlem River Tennis Courts. Shortly thereafter, the noted Harlem Cosmopolitan Tennis Club took up a collection to provide Gibson with a membership and tennis lessons.
Gibson’s big break occurred when two African American physicians offered her a home, secondary schooling, tennis instruction, and the encouragement and financial support to realize her potential. Gibson lived with one of the families in Wilmington, North Carolina during the school year and spent the summer perfecting her tennis game on the other’s backyard tennis court in Lynchburg, Virginia. She went on to win the all-black American Tennis Association (ATA) women’s singles ten years in a row (1947 – 1956), establishing herself as the best black woman tennis player.
In 1950, while in her first year as a basketball and tennis scholarship student at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, she reached the finals before being defeated. But she was not invited to any national tournaments on segregated facilities until tennis champion Alice Marble declared in American Lawn Tennis magazine:
“[Gibson] is not being judged by the yardstick of ability but by the fact that her pigmentation is somewhat different.”
Largely owing to Marble’s influence, the invitations started coming in, and she entered Wimbledon in 1951, becoming the first African American to play there. She advanced to the quarterfinals before losing. Gibson’s tennis game continued to mature. In 1956, she won sixteen of the eighteen international tournaments in which she was a participant, one of which was a Grand Slam event, the French Open. With this win, Gibson became the first black person to win a major singles tennis title.
Seven years after breaking the color barrier in 1950, she established herself as champion by winning both Wimbledon and the U.S. championship in both 1957 and 1958. In 1959 she retired from amateur tennis, played exhibition tennis, appeared in movies, recorded an album, and published her biography, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody.
In 1964 at the age of 37 she became a professional golfer. Gibson was the first black woman to hold a Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) player’s card, thus breaking the color barrier in two of the most socially elite sports. She still battled racism, however. For example, the Beaumont Country Club in Texas agreed to let her play the course, but wouldn’t allow her to use the clubhouse or the bathrooms.
Gibson married in 1965. In later years, she served as a professional tennis teacher and coach as well as the program director for a racquet club and athletic commissioner for the state of New Jersey. In 1994, Gibson suffered a stroke that left her confined to her home. She died in 2003 in her home city of East Orange, New Jersey.
Among Althea Gibson’s many honors were the Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year (1957 – 1958), National Tennis Hall of Fame (1971), Black Athletes Hall of Fame, International Tennis Hall of Fame (1971), and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame (1980). Gibson served as an inspiration for others such as Zina Garrison, Venus Williams, and Serena Williams. The way was paved for black men, too. Arthur Ashe felt that Gibson set the stage for his own later triumphs on the court.