Between 1956 and 1958, Gibson became the first Black player to win the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals. But none of it came easy.
When Althea Gibson won the Wimbledon Championships on July 6, 1957, and became the first Black athlete to capture tennis’ most illustrious title, she was roundly honored and celebrated: Queen Elizabeth II presented her with the winner’s trophy. At the Wimbledon Ball that night, Gibson danced with men’s champion Lew Hoad and the Duke of Devonshire and sang with the band. “[I]t had been,” she later wrote in her 1958 memoir, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody, “a wonderful evening and a wonderful day.” Any Wimbledon winner would have agreed.
But Gibson’s encounters with racism in and out of sports gave her special—if fleeting— satisfaction as she stood atop the tennis world.
Born to sharecropper parents in South Carolina, Gibson’s family moved to New York City’s Harlem neighborhood by 1931. Growing up, Gibson had been open-minded about race. She loved to play all kinds of sports and wanted to compete against anyone to determine which player or team was the best, as described by this author in the 2023 biography, Serving Herself: The Life and Times of Althea Gibson. “I played with any kid on the block,” Gibson told journalist Stan Hart for his 1985 book Once a Champion: Legendary Tennis Stars Revisited. “It didn’t matter whether he was white, brown, black, or yellow.” Others were less open-minded.
Gibson Played on Segregated Teams as a Youth
The American Tennis Association (ATA), which exposed Gibson to the game as an adolescent, was founded in part because the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) did not allow African Americans to join its clubs and enter its tournaments. When Gibson beat a white opponent in 1942 to win her first tournament, she was pleased: “I can’t deny that [race] made the victory all the sweeter to me,” she wrote in her memoir. “It proved to my own satisfaction that I was not only as good as she was, I was better.”
Other memories were bitter. Gibson played basketball for Harlem’s Mysterious Girls in the middle 1940s. Competing against teams that represented businesses and other organizations, the Mysterious Girls, all Black, were regarded as the best in women’s basketball in the New York metropolitan area, yet some white teams refused to play them.
The experience of being a high achiever forced to grapple with racial restrictions was a recurring challenge for Gibson. She moved to Wilmington, North Carolina in 1946 to further develop as a tennis player and complete her high school education. Gibson captained Williston Industrial High School’s girls’ basketball team, graduated in the top 10 of her class, and earned the Number 1 ranking in the ATA. But, during her time in North Carolina, Jim Crow laws forced her to sit apart from white people at the movies and on city buses. Wilmington’s school system was segregated, too; Williston was the school for Black students. The only tennis court where African Americans could play belonged to her mentor, Dr. Hubert A. Eaton, Sr.
Gibson Breaks Color Barrier at US Tennis Championship
Excellence did not spare Gibson from racial discrimination beyond the South either. In 1950, she won the Eastern Indoor Championship, and finished second in another, the National Indoor, but the USLTA, based in New York City, refused to invite her to compete at the U.S. National Lawn Tennis Championship. First played in 1881, no Black person had ever entered the tournament.
The USLTA reversed itself after Alice Marble, four-time winner of the tournament and 1939 singles champion of Wimbledon, went public with her findings that the association intended to keep Gibson out. “If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentlepeople and less like sanctimonious hypocrites,” Marble wrote in a July 1, 1950 editorial in American Tennis Magazine. “If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts.”
Even as she dominated on the courts, Gibson was excluded from the same social functions as her white peers. In 1956, when she attended a dance at the Denver Country Club, where she had come to compete in a tournament, some members objected, as multiple Grand Slam champion and Gibson’s doubles partner, Gardnar Mulloy, recounted in his book, As It Was. The tension subsided when Gibson stopped mingling with the other guests and instead took to the stage to sing.
Perhaps these moments flashed through Gibson’s mind at the Wimbledon Ball in 1957. “Shaking hands with the Queen of England was a long way away from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus going into downtown Wilmington, North Carolina,” she later wrote. “Dancing with the Duke of Devonshire was a long way from not being allowed to bowl in Jefferson City, Missouri, because the white customers complained about it.”’
Winning Wimbledon did not end prejudice for Gibson though. Days after her win, while in the Chicago area, hotels in Oak Park and River Forest would not give her a room, and the Ambassador East Hotel would not rent out its famous Pump Room for a luncheon in her honor. Many sportswriters in the United States and England would not acknowledge that Gibson was the best player in women’s tennis, even after she won the U.S. Nationals weeks later.
When she retired from tennis in 1958, she was the top-ranked woman in tennis having won more than 50 singles and doubles championships. But she struggled to earn income from her elite status in the sport. As Gibson wrote in her 1968 autobiography, So Much to Live For, “Being a champ is all well and good, but you can’t eat a crown.”
Gibson Kept Her Focus on Winning
Gibson seldom discussed racism during her tennis career, mindful that, as the only African American at the elite level, she could lose opportunities to play. She also wanted to concentrate on winning. Some Black journalists criticized Gibson’s reticence and accused her of not doing more to create future generations of Black tennis players. One, Sam Lacy, writing in the Baltimore Afro-American in 1965, described her as “an aloof representative of the colored race.”
Gibson insisted that she would contribute to social equality efforts in “my way,” and, indeed, as the times changed, so did she. Gibson joined the Ladies Professional Golf Association in 1964, becoming its first Black member. Emboldened by the language of civil rights, she spoke up about the impact of discrimination on her new career, including her challenges entering tournaments and attracting sponsors.
Gibson returned to tennis in the late 1970s when she briefly coached Leslie Allen and Zina Garrison, two of the leading Black women in the game. Gibson, winner of five Grand Slam singles titles, left a lasting impression on both. As Garrison writes in her 2001 memoir, Gibson imparted a particularly tough lesson: “She said I had to be far better than everyone else, and even then I’d probably find myself in a situation where being the best wasn’t good enough.”
Gibson died in 2003 at the age of 76. In August 2019, the U.S. Tennis Association honored her with a statue at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, the home of the U.S. Open.