Early In Life
Althea Neale Gibson was given birth to on August 25, 1927, in Silver, South Carolina. Gibson blazed a brand new trail in the sport of tennis, winning a number of the sport’s biggest game titles in the 1950s, and broke racial barriers in professional golf as well.
At a young age, Althea Gibson relocated with her family to Harlem, a community in the borough of New York City. Gibson’s life at the moment had its struggles. Her family fought to make ends meet, living on general public assistance for some time, and Gibson struggled in the classroom, often skipping school all together. Nevertheless, Althea Gibson loved to experience sports-especially table tennis-and she soon created a name for herself as a local table tennis champion. Her abilities were eventually discovered by musician Buddy Walker, who asked her to play tennis on local courts.
After winning a number of tournaments organized by the nearby recreation department, Gibson was introduced to the Harlem River Tennis Courts in 1941. Incredibly, only a year after picking up a racket for the first time, she won a local tournament financed by the American Tennis Association, an African-American organization set up to advertise and sponsor competitions for black players. She picked up two more ATA titles in 1944 and 1945. Then, right after losing one title in 1946, Gibson won 10 straight championships from 1947 to 1956. Amidst this winning streak, she made history as the 1st African-American tennis player to compete at both the U.S. National Championships (1950) and Wimbledon (1951).
Creating Historical Past
Gibson’s success at those ATA competitions provided the way for her to go to Florida A&M University on a sports scholarship. She graduated from the school in 1953, but it was a battle for her to get by. At one point, she even thought of leaving sports completely to join the U.S. Army. A good deal of her disappointment revolved around the fact that a lot of the tennis world was shut off to her. The white-dominated, white-managed sport was separated in the United States, as was the world around it.
The breaking point came in 1950, when Alice Mable, a former tennis No. 1 herself, published a piece in American Lawn Tennis magazine lambasting her sport for denying a player of Gibson’s caliber to contend in the world’s best tournaments. Mable’s article caught notice, and by 1952-just 1 year after becoming the 1st black player to contend at Wimbledon-Gibson was a Top 10 player in the United States. She continued to climb even higher, to No. 7 by 1953.
In 1955, Gibson and her game were financed by the United States Lawn Tennis Association, which sent her all over the world on a State Department tour that saw her compete in places like India, Pakistan, and Burma. Measuring 5-feet 11-inches, and possessing superb power and athletic skill, Gibson seemed destined for bigger victories. In 1956, it all came together when she won the French Open. Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles followed in both 1957 and 1958. (She won both the women’s singles and doubles at Wimbledon in 1957, that was celebrated by a ticker tape celebration when she came back home to New York City.) In all, Gibson powered her way to 56 singles and doubles championships before turning pro in 1959.
As a professional, Gibson continued to win-she landed the singles title in 1960-but just as importantly, she began to make money. She was apparently paid $100,000 for a playing a number of matches before Harlem Globetrotter games. For a short period of time, the athletically talented Gibson took on golf, creating history once again as the 1st black woman ever to be competitive on the pro tour.
But failing to win on the course as she had on the courts, she at some point came back to tennis. In 1968, with the advent of tennis’ Open era, Gibson attempted to repeat her previous achievement. She was too old and too slow-footed, nonetheless, to keep up with her younger counterparts.
Following her retirement, in 1971, Gibson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She remained connected to sports, however, through a number of service positions. Beginning in 1975, she served 10 years as commissioner of athletics for New Jersey State. She was also a member of the governor’s council on physical fitness.
But just as her early childhood had been, Gibson’s last few years were dominated by difficulty. She nearly went insolvent before former tennis great Billy Jean King as well as others stepped in to help her out. Her health, too, went into decline. She experienced a stroke and developed serious heart related illnesses. On September 28, 2003, Gibson passed away of respiratory system failure in East Orange, New Jersey.