The life of Althea Gibson, a dominant tennis player in the 50s, was filled with successes that influenced the participation of African Americans in tennis, as well as leading the way for female tennis players by being the first black, male or female, to win a Grand Slam title. Althea was born on August 25, 1927 in Silver, South Carolina, but was raised in Harlem where she had a less than opulent life. For recreation, Althea began playing table tennis at a young age.
Buddy Walker, a musician, noticed Althea’s interest in the game and introduced her to tennis at the Harlem River Tennis Courts. An active member in the tennis community named Dr. Walter Johnson also noticed Althea and invested his time and money into helping with her training. Dr. Johnson put Althea into better competitions, as well as setting up contacts with the USTA to introduce her to the recognized tennis scene. In 1942, Althea entered and won her first tournament that was sponsored by the all-black African Tennis Association.
Four years later she moved to North Carolina to receive tennis training, and in 1947 she won the first of ten consecutive ATA women’s singles championships. Until 1950, Althea and other African American tennis players were only allowed to play in the ATA and could not compete against any white players. However, Althea was finally given the opportunity in 1950 to play in the Forest Hills National Grass Court Championship in New York, the first African American player of either sex to be allowed to enter.
One year later she became the first African American to be invited to Wimbledon, the All-England Championships. These two tournaments would be the foundation for Althea’s continuous growth in the sport of tennis. She played in many more large tournaments and in 1956 she struck big at the French Open by taking home the gold. It only got better for Althea because in 1957 she won both singles and doubles at Wimbledon, as well as the US National Tennis Championships at Forest Hill.
In 1958 she did it all over again by taking home the title for the second time in both Wimbledon and Forest Hill. These titles were among the most admirable in Althea’s career. Her successes as an African American tennis player were especially exceptional because she was a woman. Woman had to face their own struggles to make their way into sports, however, Althea managed to push ahead of all men as well as whites in tennis.
I find it truly incredible that she overcame two types of segregation, especially uring a time where prejudice and racism were prevalent in society. Althea Gibson was one of the most significant African American athletes of her time because of her strength and composure through a time of racial prejudice. Althea helped pave the way for some of the greatest athletes in tennis such as Venus and Serena Williams and Arthur Ashe. She remains a hero to African Americans, woman, and to people in the tennis community.