The sociological and historical significance of August 25, 1950 was enormous for African-Americans in their pursuit of breaking down color lines and paving the way for equal opportunities as Althea Gibson became the first African-American to compete at the U.S. National Championships. Gibson’s inclusion in America’s biggest tennis event wasn’t just about gaining acceptance in the sporting world, but seen as a momentum builder for blacks in the game of life. What Jackie Robinson did for baseball by being in the Brooklyn Dodgers’s starting lineup at first base on April 15, 1947, Althea Gibson did for tennis when she made her historic debut, defeating Barbara Knapp, 6-2, 6-2, in the first round.
Gibson had a jam-packed eight-year career, with all of her major championships coming from 1956 to 1958, when she appeared in a stunning 19 major finals and won 11 titles. Five were in singles: the French in 1956, Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958, and the U.S. Nationals in 1957 and 1958; five in women’s doubles: the French 1956, the Australian in 1957, Wimbledon in 1956, 1957, 1958 and one in mixed doubles, at the U.S. in 1957. After that remarkable run of accomplishment, Gibson became the first African-American to compete on the women’s professional golf tour in 1960.
Until Evonne Goolagong, who was from an Australian Aboriginal family, won the French Open and Wimbledon Ladies Singles Championship in 1971, Gibson held the distinction of being the only woman of color to win a major championship for 15 years. It took 43 years, when Serena Williams won the 1999 US Open, for another African-American female to win a major singles title.
Hailing from the small, rural town of Silver, S.C., the Gibson family moved north in search of a brighter life and stronger financial future, settling in Harlem in 1930. Few could predict that 20 years later Gibson would become the first African-American to grace the August 26, 1957 cover of Time Magazine and September 2, 1957 cover of Sports Illustrated.
She was athletic as a youth, gravitating toward basketball and paddle tennis, said to have won the New York City women’s paddle championship at the precocious age of 12. She had natural and burgeoning tennis skills that couldn’t be ignored. Initially, Gibson played in the American Tennis Association (ATA), the oldest African-American sports organization in the United States, established in 1916 as the black equivalent to the United States Lawn Tennis Association. Gibson captured junior national championships at 17-and-18 years old, and in 1947 won the first of ten straight ATA national women’s titles.
Such scintillating talent couldn’t go unnoticed for long – there were bigger and better opportunities ahead for Gibson. Dr. Robert Johnson was keen to Gibson’s prowess. He became Gibson’s mentor and sponsor, providing her with the opportunity to gain advanced instruction and compete in more highly skilled competitions. Four-time U.S. National singles titlist Alice Marble lobbied vigorously for Gibson’s inclusion into the U.S. event. Writing in the July 1950 issue of American Lawn Tennis magazine, Marble said, “If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of players, then it’s only fair that they meet this challenge on the courts.”
The lobbying began in the spring of 1950, and the wheels of progress moved slowly, Gibson practiced with another staunch supporter, Sarah Palfrey. “It became apparent early that Althea’s height (5-foot-11) and big service could be a great asset to women’s tennis if she could develop a good follow-up volley,” Palfrey said in a 1956 Sports Illustrated story.
With such a staunch advocate as Palfrey on her side, Gibson earned an invitation to compete at the prestigious Eastern Lawn Tennis Association Grass Court Championships played in Orange, New Jersey prior to the U.S. Nationals in August. While negotiations were still taking place with the Forest Hills administration, Gibson reached the second round of the tournament, defeating Virginia Rice Johnson, 6-1, 6-3, before falling to Helen Perez, 6-1, 6-1 in the second round.
Shortly after the Eastern Championships was completed, Gibson was sent an entry blank for the U.S. Nationals. Prior to her coronation at Forest Hills, Palfrey asked her friend how she was feeling. “I am not afraid of any of these players,” Gibson said. She made her debut at the U.S. Nationals on court 14, which didn’t have the capacity to seat many spectators. Those who squeezed in witnessed history, as Gibson defeated Knapp, setting up a second round match with No. 3 seed and defending Wimbledon champion Louise Brough.
Of the many members of the media in attendance, New York Journal-American sportswriter David Eisenberg told Sports Illustrated, “I have sat in on many dramatic moments in sports, but few were more thrilling than Miss Gibson’s performance against Miss Brough. Not because great tennis was played, because it wasn’t. But because of the great try by this lonely, and nervous, colored girl, and because of the manner in which the elements robbed her of her great triumph.’
In her match against Brough, Gibson was jittery and nervous, dropping the first set 6-1. She found her stroke and her power in the second set and tied the match with a 6-3 win. In the third set, Gibson broke Brough three times to take a 7-6 lead when torrential rain and a massive thunder and lightning storm rolled in, postponing the match until the following day. When it was resumed, Brough won the next three games for a 9-7 third-set victory.
According to the USTA, Gibson won her first international championships at the Caribbean Championships in Montego Bay, Jamaica in 1951. In July, she continued her pioneering journey by becoming the first African-American to play at Wimbledon, losing to No. 5 seed Beverly Baker, 6-1, 6-3 in the third round.
Once Gibson got rolling five years later in 1956, she was like a bowling ball headed straight for the 10-pin – her play was on a championship collision course. While she won quite a few singles championships, it wasn’t until she won the French Championships, over Angela Mortimer Barrett (in her first and only appearance at Roland Garros) did she make worldwide headlines that many predicted were forthcoming after her debut at the U.S. Nationals a year earlier. When Gibson teamed with Angela Buxton to win the doubles championship at Paris as well – the first of five major doubles titles – the message was crystal clear: Althea Gibson is a player to be reckoned with. Up until that point, she had only advanced to the third round of Wimbledon (1951) and had three third round appearances at the U.S. Nationals. She closed out the 1956 season advancing to the finals of the U.S. Nationals, where she lost to Shirley Fry, 6-3, 6-4.
To start the 1957 season, Fry stymied Gibson at the Australian, 6-3, 6-4. But on a 90-degree day in London, the No. 1 seed Gibson defeated Darlene Hard in 50 minutes to become the first African-American to win a Wimbledon Ladies Singles Championship. She and Hard teamed to win an impressive doubles title – Gibson’s second at Wimbledon. Two months later, Gibson defeated Brough, 6-3, 6-2, to win the U.S. Nationals Women’s Singles championship and Vice President Richard Nixon presented her with the trophy, filled with white gladioli and red roses. The monumental victory led to a ticker-tape parade along Broadway in New York City. Legendary tennis writer Allison Danzig wrote in the New York Times, “The girl who was playing paddle tennis on the streets of Harlem some fifteen years ago, found herself, at the age of 30, at the pinnacle of tennisdom.”
Gibson successfully defended both of those titles the next year, defeating Barrett at Wimbledon, 8-6, 6-2, and Hard at the U.S. Nationals, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, the only one of her five major championships that went three sets. She was Wimbledon doubles champion for three consecutive years (1956 with Angela Buxton, 1957 with Hard, and 1958 with Maria Bueno). Her one mixed doubles title came at the U.S. Championships in 1957, teaming with Denmark’s Kurt Nielsen. In both 1957 and 1958, Gibson was named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year.
At the conclusion of the 1958 season, Gibson had won 58 combined singles and doubles titles. She had compiled an impressive 53-9 record at the majors (16-1 at Wimbledon; 27-7 at the U.S.; 6-0 at the French; 4-1 at the Australian) and had been a member of the 1957 and 1958 Wightman Cup teams, helping the team win a championship in 1957.
The No. 1 ranked player in the world then retired and turned professional. However, there wasn’t much money to be made in professional women’s tennis, so Gibson turned her attention to professional golf, and in 1964, at age 37, became the first African-American woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour.
Gibson’s widely distributed quote read, “I always wanted to be somebody. If I made it, it’s half because I was game enough to take a lot of punishment along the way and half because there were a lot of people who cared enough to help me.”
Source: Tennis Hall of Fame