Trailblazing athlete Althea Gibson became the first great African-American player in women’s tennis. Raised primarily in Harlem section of New York City, she won a string of American Tennis Association titles on the African-American circuit. After being allowed entry to the major tournaments, she became the first black player to win Wimbledon and the French and U.S. Open titles. Gibson turned professional in 1959, and made more history by becoming the first African-American competitor on the women’s pro golf tour in the 1960s. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971, and later served as Commissioner of Athletics for the state of New Jersey.
Althea Gibson blazed a new trail in the sport of tennis, winning some of the sport’s biggest titles in the 1950s and becoming the game’s first black champion. Raised primarily in the Harlem borough of New York City, where Gibson and her family moved when she was young, her life had its hardships. Her family lived on public assistance for a time. Gibson struggled in the classroom as well, and often skipped school all together, but loved to play sports – especially ping-pong. After winning several tournaments hosted by the local recreation department, Gibson was introduced to the Harlem River Tennis Courts in 1941. Incredibly, just a year after picking up a racket for the first time, Gibson won a local tournament sponsored by the American Tennis Association, an African-American organization established to promote and sponsor tournaments for black players. For Gibson, two more ATA titles followed in 1944 and 1945. After losing one title in 1946, Gibson won 10 straight championships from 1947-1956.
Gibson’s success at those ATA tournaments paved the way for her to attend college on a sports scholarship. She graduated from the school in 1953, but it was a struggle for her to get by. At one point, she even thought of leaving sports all together to join the U.S. Army. A good deal of her frustration had to do with thefact that so much of the tennis world was closed off to her. The white-dominated, white-managed sport was segregated in the U.S. in much the same way that the world around it was. The breaking point came in 1950 when Alice Mable, a former tennis No. 1 herself, wrote a piece in American Lawn Tennis magazine lambasting her sport for denying a playerof Gibson’s caliber to compete in the world’s best tournaments. Mable’s article caught notice and in 1951, and Gibson made history when she became the first African-American ever invited to play at Wimbledon. A year later, she was a Top 10 player in the U.S. She then climbed even higher, to No. 7 in 1953.