Althea Gibson: The Tennis Pioneer
“People thought I was ruthless, which I was. I didn’t give a darn who was on the other side of the net. I’d knock you down if you got in my way.” — Althea Gibson
“No matter what accomplishments you make, somebody helped you.” — Althea Gibson (source HERE)
Althea Gibson was born in Silver, South Carolina on August 25, 1927. She grew up in a poor family in Harlem but caught the attention of a Lynchburg, Virginia doctor who was active in the African American tennis community.
Dr. Walter Johnson became Althea’s patron and was later known for mentoring Arthur Ashe, a black tennis champion who won at Forest Hills in 1968 and Wimbledon in 1975. Through her connection with Johnson, Althea had access to better instruction and competitions. He also connected her to the United States Tennis Association (USTA), opening her up to the tennis scene.
Althea was the first black to win championships at famous tournaments, such as the French Open, the United States Open, the Australian Doubles and Wimbledon in the 1950s. Even though she was subject to the segregation that plagued African Americans at the time; she trailblazed across the tennis scene and had an exciting amateur career.
During this career, she won 56 doubles and singles titles before gaining national and international acclaim for her athletic feats in professional tennis leagues. In the late 1950s, Gibson won eleven major titles including three straight doubles at the French Open in 1956, 1957 and 1958. She was winner of the French Open in 1956, Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958 and the U.S. Open in 1957 and 1958.
Gibson was the first African American to be named as the Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press in 1957. She was given that honor again the following year. When she won her second U.S. Championship, she went professional.
Gibson is known for playing a set of matches before the famed Harlem Globetrotter basketball games that netted her a reported $100,000 during one year. Althea did not really establish herself on the pro golf tour and tried to play a few events after 1968 when open tennis started. By that time, she was in her 40s and was too old to beat the younger competition that had cropped up. When she stopped competing, she worked as a tennis instructor and taught pro.
In 1975, Althea Gibson was named the New Jersey Commissioner of Athletics. She held this position for ten years and also served on both the State’s Athletics Control Board and the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness. She passed away at the age of 76 on September 28, 2003 at East Orange General Hospital.
During her illustrious career, she wrote an autobiography titled “I Always Wanted to Be Somebody” in 1958. To her fans she was a special person and a pioneer in the black tennis community. Althea Gibson’s experiences and successes paved the way for other great black tennis players like Arthur Ashe.
(Biographical information from Ms. Gibson’s website)
*Welcome to Black History Month. As a proud African-American, I plan to highlight the women who made critical impacts in black history and paved the way for me to be able to do the things that I have done and will do today. They may be activist for equality, women’s rights, pioneers, educators, figures in black feminism (yes we had to even create our own piece of feminism!) so on. If you have a woman you would like to see highlighted this month — do let me know.