April 2002

Althea Gibson

Athlete

Althea Gibson is a champion among athletes. As a pioneer in both amateur tennis and professional golf, she overcame unbelievable odds from the violent streets of Harlem to achieve international acclaim in the face of racial prejudice. Her strength of character and remarkable composure were pivotal to winning Wimbledon and U. S. championships in 1957. She became the first black player to win the Wimbledon singles title and the first to win the U. S. national title. After repeating as Wimbledon and U. S. Nation champion in 1958, she was ranked No. 1 in the U. S. and the world. Gibson was never completely at ease in amateur tennis for she realized that, despite her success, she was still unwelcome at some clubs where important tournaments were played. Later, she signed a $100,000 contract to play tennis exhibitions at half-time of Harlem Globetrotter games. Gibson was born on a cotton farm in Silver, South Carolina (near Sumter), in 1927. Three years later, her parents, who were sharecroppers, moved to Harlem. Something of a tomboy as a youngster, she played basketball, stickball, and paddle tennis. She won her age group New York paddle tennis championship in 1939 and then began taking lessons at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club. In 1942, she won her first tournament, sponsored by the all-black American Tennis Association (ATA). Gibson began playing in the all-black American Tennis Association tournaments in 1945 and won the New York state championships six times from 1944-50. Gibson moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1946 to advance her tennis game with a well-to-do black doctor, Hubert A. Eaton of Wilmington. Barred from public courts because she was black, she practiced on Dr. Eaton’s backyard court. At the age of 15 she was New York State black girls’ singles tennis champion; this was the first of the nearly 100 professional titles, including five Grand Slam crowns she would hold during a career that spanned almost 20 years. Her entry in the U. S. Championships of 1950 at Forest Hills was historic, the first appearance of an American black in that national indoor tournament event. She finished second. This position should have won her an invitation to the U. S. National at Forest Hills; however, tennis was largely a segregated sport in the U. S. No invitation came until after a letter from a former champion, Alice Marble, appeared in the July issue of American Lawn Tennis magazine. Marble wrote that she was embarrassed by ‘the bigotry’ exhibited by her fellow all-white members of the USLTA. One week later, Gibson received an invitation to the following month’s U. S. Open. A mark of general acceptance, however, was her 1957 selection to represent the U. S. on the Wrightman Cup team against Britain. In addition to accolades received from the press, fans, and fellow players for her accomplishments, Gibson has notched up several firsts outside of sports. For example, she was appointed sports commissioner for New York state in 1975 by the governor.