Althea Gibson (August 25, 1927 – September 28, 2003) was an American tennis player and professional golfer, and the first Blackathlete to cross the color line of international tennis. In 1956, she became the first African American to win a Grand Slam title (the French Championships). The following year she won both Wimbledon and the US Nationals (precursor of the US Open), then won both again in 1958, and was voted Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press in both years. In all, she won 11 Grand Slam tournaments, including five singles titles, five doubles titles, and one mixed doubles title. Gibson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. “She is one of the greatest players who ever lived,” said Bob Ryland, a tennis contemporary and former coach of Venus and Serena Williams. “Martina [Navratilova] couldn’t touch her. I think she’d beat the Williams sisters.” In the early 1960s she also became the first Black player to compete on the Women’s Professional Golf Tour.
At a time when racism and prejudice were widespread in sports and in society, Gibson was often compared to Jackie Robinson. “Her road to success was a challenging one,” said Billie Jean King, “but I never saw her back down.” “To anyone, she was an inspiration, because of what she was able to do at a time when it was enormously difficult to play tennis at all if you were Black,” said former New York City Mayor David Dinkins. “I am honored to have followed in such great footsteps,” wrote Venus Williams. “Her accomplishments set the stage for my success, and through players like myself and Serena and many others to come, her legacy will live on.”
Early life and education
Gibson was born on August 25, 1927, in the town of Silver, in Clarendon County, South Carolina, to Daniel and Annie Bell Gibson, who worked as sharecroppers on a cotton farm. The Great Depression hit rural southern farmers sooner than much of the rest of the country, so in 1930 the family moved to Harlem, where Althea’s three sisters and brother were born. Their apartment was located on a stretch of 143rd Street (between Lenox Avenue and Seventh Avenue) that had been designated a Police Athletic League play area; during daylight hours it was barricaded so that neighborhood children could play organized sports. Gibson quickly became proficient in paddle tennis, and by 1939, at the age of 12, she was the New York City women’s paddle tennis champion.
In 1940 a group of Gibson’s neighbors took up a collection to finance a junior membership and lessons at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem. In 1941 she entered—and won—her first tournament, the American Tennis Association (ATA) New York State Championship. She won the ATA national championship in the girls’ division in 1944 and 1945, and after losing in the women’s final in 1946, won her first of ten straight national ATA women’s titles in 1947. “I knew that I was an unusual, talented girl, through the grace of God,” she wrote. “I didn’t need to prove that to myself. I only wanted to prove it to my opponents.”
Gibson’s ATA success drew the attention of Walter Johnson, a Lynchburg, Virginia, physician who was active in the African American tennis community. Under Johnson’s patronage—he would later mentor Arthur Ashe as well—Gibson gained access to more advanced instruction and more important competitions, and later, to the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA, later known as the USTA). In 1946 she moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, under the sponsorship of another physician and tennis activist, Hubert A. Eaton. and enrolled at the racially segregated Williston Industrial High School. In 1949 she became the first Black woman, and the second Black athlete (after Reginald Weir), to play in the USTA’s National Indoor Championships, where she reached the quarter-finals. Later that year she entered Florida A&M University (FAMU) on a full athletic scholarship.
Despite her growing reputation as an elite-level player, Gibson was effectively barred from entering the premier American tournament, the United States National Championships (now the US Open) at Forest Hills. While USTA rules officially prohibited racial or ethnic discrimination, players qualified for the Nationals by accumulating points at sanctioned tournaments, most of which were held at white-only clubs. In 1950, in response to intense lobbying by ATA officials and retired champion Alice Marble—who published a scathing open letter in the magazine American Lawn Tennis—Gibson became the first Black player to receive an invitation to the Nationals, where she made her Forest Hills debut on her 23rd birthday. Although she lost narrowly in the second round in a rain-delayed, three-set match to Louise Brough, the reigning Wimbledon champion and former US National winner, her participation received extensive national and international coverage. “No Negro player, man or woman, has ever set foot on one of these courts,” wrote journalist Lester Rodney at the time. “In many ways, it is even a tougher personal Jim Crow-busting assignment than was Jackie Robinson‘s when he first stepped out of the Brooklyn Dodgers dugout.”
In 1951 Gibson won her first international title, the Caribbean Championships in Jamaica, and later that year became the first Black competitor at Wimbledon, where she was defeated in the third round by Beverly Baker. In 1952 she was ranked seventh nationally by the USTA. In the spring of 1953 she graduated from Florida A&M and took a job teaching physical education at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. During her two years at Lincoln she became romantically involved with an Army officer whom she never named publicly, and considered enlisting in the Women’s Army Corps, but decided against it when the State Department sent her on a goodwill tour of Asia in 1955 to play exhibition matches with Ham Richardson, Bob Perry, and Karol Fageros. Many Asians in the countries they visited—Burma, Ceylon, India, Pakistan, and Thailand—”…felt an affinity to Althea as a woman of color and were delighted to see her as part of an official US delegation. With the United States grappling over the question of race, they turned to Althea for answers, or at least to get a firsthand perspective.” Gibson, for her part, strengthened her confidence immeasurably during the six-week tour. When it was over, she remained abroad, winning 16 of 18 tournaments in Europe and Asia against many of the world’s best players. In 1956 Gibson became the first African-American athlete to win a Grand Slam tournament, the French Championships singles event. She also won the doubles title, partnered with Briton Angela Buxton. Later in the season she won the Wimbledon doubles championship (again with Buxton), the Italian Championships in Rome, the Indian Championships in New Delhi and the Asian championship in Ceylon. She also reached the quarter-finals in singles at Wimbledon and the finals at the US Nationals, losing both to Shirley Fry.
The 1957 season was, in her own words, “Althea Gibson’s year”. In July Gibson was seeded first at Wimbledon—considered, at the time, the “world championship of tennis”, and won the title after a victory in the final against Darlene Hard. She was the first Black champion in the tournament’s 80-year history, and the first champion to receive the trophy personally from Queen Elizabeth II. “Shaking hands with the queen of England,” she said, “was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus.” She won the doubles championship as well, for the second year. Upon her return home Gibson became only the second Black American, after Jesse Owens, to be honored with a ticker tape parade in New York City, and Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. presented her with the Bronze Medallion, the city’s highest civilian award. A month later she defeated Brough in straight sets to win her first US National Championship. “Winning Wimbledon was wonderful,” she wrote, “and it meant a lot to me. But there is nothing quite like winning the championship of your own country.” In all she reached the finals of eight Grand Slam events in 1957, winning the Wimbledon and US National singles titles, the Wimbledon and Australian doubles championships, and the US mixed doubles crown, and finishing second in Australian singles, US doubles, and Wimbledon mixed doubles. At season’s end she broke yet another barrier as the first Black player on the US Wightman Cup team, which defeated Great Britain 6–1.
In 1958 Gibson successfully defended her Wimbledon and US National singles titles, and won her third straight Wimbledon doubles championship, with a third different partner. She was the number-one-ranked woman in the world and in the United States in both 1957 and 1958, and was named Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press in both years garnering over 80% of the votes in 1958. She also became the first Black woman to appear on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time.
In late 1958, having won 56 national and international singles and doubles titles, Gibson retired from amateur tennis. Prior to the Open Era there was no prize money at major tournaments, and direct endorsement deals were prohibited. Players were limited to meager expense allowances, strictly regulated by the USTA. “The truth, to put it bluntly, is that my finances were in heartbreaking shape,” she wrote. “Being the Queen of Tennis is all well and good, but you can’t eat a crown. Nor can you send the Internal Revenue Service a throne clipped to their tax forms. The landlord and grocer and tax collector are funny that way: they like cold cash … I reign over an empty bank account, and I’m not going to fill it by playing amateur tennis.” Professional tours for women were still 15 years away, so her opportunities were largely limited to promotional events. In 1959 she signed to play a series of exhibition matches against Karol Fageros before Harlem Globetrotter basketball games. When the tour ended she won the singles and doubles titles at the Pepsi Cola World Pro Tennis Championships in Cleveland, but received only $500 in prize money.
During this period, Gibson also pursued her long-held aspirations in the entertainment industry. A talented vocalist and saxophonist—and runner-up in the Apollo Theater‘s amateur talent contest in 1943 she made her professional singing debut at W. C. Handy‘s 84th birthday tribute at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in 1957. An executive from Dot Records was impressed with her performance, and signed her to record an album of popular standards. Althea Gibson Sings was released in 1959, and Gibson performed two of its songs on The Ed Sullivan Show in May and July of that year, but sales were disappointing. She appeared as a celebrity guest on the TV panel show What’s My Line? and was cast as a slave woman in the John Ford motion picture The Horse Soldiers (1959), which was notable for her refusal to speak in the stereotypic “Negro” dialect mandated by the script. She also worked as a sports commentator, appeared in print and television advertisements for various products, and increased her involvement in social issues and community activities. In 1960 her first memoir, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody, written with sportswriter Ed Fitzgerald, was published.
Her professional tennis career, however, was going nowhere. “When I looked around me, I saw that white tennis players, some of whom I had thrashed on the court, were picking up offers and invitations,” she wrote. “Suddenly it dawned on me that my triumphs had not destroyed the racial barriers once and for all, as I had—perhaps naively—hoped. Or if I did destroy them, they had been erected behind me again.”
In 1964, at the age of 37, Gibson became the first African-American woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour. Racial discrimination continued to be a problem: Many hotels still excluded people of color, and country club officials throughout the south—and some in the north—routinely refused to allow her to compete. When she did compete, she was often forced to dress for tournaments in her car because she was banned from the clubhouse. Although she was one of the LPGA’s top 50 money winners for five years, and won a car at a Dinah Shore tournament, her lifetime golf earnings never exceeded $25,000. She made financial ends meet with various sponsorship deals and the support of her husband, William Darben, brother of best friend and fellow tennis player Rosemary Darben, whom she married in 1965 (and divorced in 1976).
While she broke course records during individual rounds in several tournaments, Gibson’s highest ranking was 27th in 1966, and her best tournament finish was a tie for second after a three-way playoff at the 1970 Len Immke Buick Open. She retired from professional golf at the end of the 1978 season. “Althea might have been a real player of consequence had she started when she was young,” said Judy Rankin. “She came along during a difficult time in golf, gained the support of a lot of people, and quietly made a difference.”
In 1976 Gibson made it to the finals of the ABC television program Superstars, finishing first in basketball shooting and bowling, and runner-up in softball throwing. With the advent of the Open Era she began entering major tennis tournaments again; but by then, in her forties, she was unable to compete effectively against younger players. She also attempted a golf comeback, in 1987 at age 60, with the goal of becoming the oldest active tour player, but was unable to regain her tour card. In a second memoir, So Much to Live For, she articulated her disappointments, including unfulfilled aspirations, the paucity of endorsements and other professional opportunities, and the many obstacles of all sorts that were thrown in her path over the years.
In 1972 she began running Pepsi Cola’s national mobile tennis project, which brought portable nets and other equipment to underprivileged areas in major cities. She ran multiple other clinics and tennis outreach programs over the next three decades, and coached numerous rising competitors, including Leslie Allen and Zina Garrison. “She pushed me as if I were a pro, not a junior,” wrote Garrison in her 2001 memoir. “I owe the opportunity I received to her.”
In the early 1970s Gibson began directing women’s sports and recreation for the Essex County Parks Commission in New Jersey. In 1976 she was appointed New Jersey’s athletic commissioner, the first woman in the country to hold such a role, but resigned after one year due to lack of autonomy, budgetary oversight, and adequate funding. “I don’t wish to be a figurehead,” she said. In 1977 she challenged incumbent Essex County State Senator Frank J. Dodd in the Democratic primary for his seat. She came in second behind Dodd, but ahead of Assemblyman Eldridge Hawkins. Gibson went on to manage the Department of Recreation in East Orange, New Jersey. She also served on the State Athletic Control Board and became supervisor of the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. In 1983 she married Sydney Llewellyn, her coach during her peak tennis years. That marriage also ended in divorce, after five years; she had no children.
In the late 1980s Gibson suffered two cerebral hemorrhages and in 1992, a stroke. Ongoing medical expenses depleted her financial resources, leaving her unable to afford her rent or medication. Though she reached out to multiple tennis organizations requesting help, none responded. Former doubles partner Angela Buxton made Gibson’s plight known to the tennis community, and raised nearly $1 million in donations from around the world.
In early 2003 Gibson survived a heart attack, but died on September 28, 2003, at the age of 76 from complications following respiratory and bladder infections. Her body was interred in the Rosedale Cemetery in Orange near her first husband, Will Darben.