In the world of tennis, the biggest winner of note was a black woman named Althea Gibson. Life’s victories don’t always go to the stronger or faster woman, to paraphrase an old adage, but Gibson demonstrated that sooner or later, the woman who wins is the one who thinks she can.
Gibson was three years old in 1930 when her family moved from a sharecropper’s shack on a cotton farm in South Carolina to New York City’s Harlem in search of a better life. At her elementary public school (with the uninspiring moniker, “PS 136”), playing hooky was her first love. “School was too confining and boring to be worthy of more than cameo appearances,” according to her biographers Francis Clayton Gray and Yanick Rice Lamb in Born to Win.
The Beaumont Country Club in Texas let her play its course but refused to permit her to use the clubhouse or the bathrooms.
When she wasn’t fidgeting in the classroom, Gibson was exploring the Big Apple — riding the subway, shooting hoops, sneaking into movie theaters, and beating the pants off anybody who dared to play her at ping-pong. At the age of 12 in 1939, she was New York City’s female table tennis champion, and tennis on the big courts beckoned. Her Harlem neighbors went door to door, raising donations in dimes, quarters, and the occasional dollar to pay for her membership and tennis lessons at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club. Within a year, she won her first tournament, the New York State Championship of the American Tennis Association (ATA).
All through the 1940s, Gibson won title after title. “I knew that I was an unusual, talented girl, through the grace of God,” she later wrote when reflecting on this period. “I didn’t need to prove that to myself. I only wanted to prove it to my opponents.”
Off the court, she was both cocky and gracious, never overbearing or condescending. On the court, she was fiercely competitive. Her bulldog determination and her athletic, five-foot-eleven frame intimidated opponents right from the start of a match.
The ATA gave Gibson ample opportunity to prove her prowess among black tennis players, but it was a limited market. Tennis was a segregated sport at the time; indeed, the ATA itself was expressly organized for blacks who were denied the right to play in the US National Championship competitions (now the US Open). That changed in 1950, largely due to the courage of another woman, Alice Marble.
Having won 18 Grand Slam championships, Marble was the best white female tennis player in the world. Her opinion on anything could make headlines. In 1950, World Tennis magazine published a letter in which Marble challenged the US Tennis Association for its discriminatory practices, specifically for not inviting Althea Gibson to play at its famous Forest Hills championship matches in New York City:
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. 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.
Marble declared that if Gibson wasn’t given the opportunity to compete, “then there is an uneradicable mark against a game to which I have devoted most of my life, and I would be bitterly ashamed.”
Gibson’s invitation soon arrived, making her the first black player (male or female) to play at Forest Hills in the sport’s national championships. It was her 23rd birthday. Though she lost in the second round to Louise Brough, the reigning Wimbledon champ and former US National victor, her involvement generated immense international media attention. Journalist Lester Rodney wrote,
No Negro player, man or woman, has ever set foot on one of these courts. 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.
The next six years were peppered with achievements and notoriety for Althea Gibson:
- In 1951, Gibson won her first international title, the Caribbean Championships in Jamaica, and a few months later, she became the first black to play at Wimbledon.
- In 1952, she was ranked seventh nationally by the US Tennis Association.
- In 1953, she graduated from Florida A&M and began teaching physical education at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri.
- In 1955, she toured Asia as a goodwill ambassador, playing in exhibition matches and earning widespread admiration.
- In 1956, she became the first black athlete to win a Grand Slam singles championship, the French Open; before the year was out, she also won the Wimbledon doubles championship, the Italian national championship, and the Asian championship.
But as Gibson said herself, 1957 was the tops. In July, she won the world singles championship at Wimbledon and became the first black to take the title in the tournament’s eight-decade history.
Queen Elizabeth personally presented the trophy to an awestruck Gibson. “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.”
In addition to the top spot in singles at Wimbledon that year, Gibson walked away as the doubles champion, too, for the second year in a row. When she returned to America, she became the second black American (the first being Jesse Owens) honored by a ticker tape parade down Broadway in New York City, with more than a hundred thousand people cheering their approval.
Later in 1957, Gibson won the Nationals. Then, in 1958, she successfully defended her Wimbledon and United States titles while also emerging victorious at the Australian Open, giving her no less than three of the four Grand Slam titles in professional tennis. Both in 1957 and in 1958, Althea Gibson was the number one–ranked woman tennis player in the world. Honored as “Female Athlete of the Year” by the Associated Press in both years, she also became the first black woman to appear on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time magazines.
"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." — Althea Gibson
After retiring from the sport in 1958, Gibson released her own album, “Althea Gibson Sings,” and wrote an autobiography. She even toured with the Harlem Globetrotters, exhibiting her tennis skills during halftime, and earned additional income as a “community relations representative” for a Brooklyn bakery.
Gibson took up golf in 1964, at age 37. She joined the Ladies Professional Golf Association as the only female black golf pro. Racism confronted her when the Beaumont Country Club in Texas let her play its course but refused to permit her to use the clubhouse or the bathrooms. She took it in stride by simply avoiding such places thereafter. “I don’t want to go where I’m not wanted,” she said. “I’m trying to be a good golfer, I have enough problems as it is.” Beaumont eventually abandoned its color barrier.
“I always wanted to be somebody,” Gibson wrote in her autobiography. “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.”
A dozen years before she died at age 76 in 2003, Gibson summed up her lifelong winning attitude with these words: “The loser always has an excuse; the winner always has a program. The loser says it may be possible, but it’s difficult; the winner says it may be difficult, but it’s possible.”
For further information, see:
- Gray and Lamb’s biography, Born To Win: The Authorized Biography of Althea Gibson
- An eight-minute video on Gibson, “HerStory: The World’s Greatest Female Athletes”
- Althea Gibson’s 1958 appearance on the TV show, What’s My Line?
- Althea Gibson singing, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love”
- The International Tennis Hall of Fame’s tribute to Althea Gibson
- Bruce Schoenfeld’s The Match: Althea Gibson & Angela Buxton