Thursday, April 21, 2016

Althea Gibson, Tennis Champion

Althea Gibson was the first black tennis player to compete in the US Championships and Wimbledon. She won both in 1957 and 1958. 

"Being a champion is all well and good, but you can't eat a crown." ~ Althea Gibson

Althea Gibson was born on August 25th 1927 in Silver, South Carolina. Her family moved north to get away from the restrictive and demeaning Jim Crow laws of the South, but upon arrival in Harlem when Althea was three, they found the North was not much better. The family still faced discrimination and segregation, and struggled financially.

Althea disliked school so much she would often skip classes, but then her father would whip her, she reported - "and I'm not talking about spankings." She took to sports quickly, first taking up basketball, then moving to table tennis. She became so good at table tennis she attracted the attention of Buddy Walker, a local musician, who gave her a tennis racket and told her to try actual tennis, not the table-top variety.

She enjoyed the game and showed so much skill that in 1941, Althea quit high school - she could no longer stand the classes - and started playing at the local Harlem River Tennis Courts.

She began competing in the American Tennis Association (ATA), a group owned and operated by black players, for black players. In 1944 and 1945, she won two ATA titles. Then from 1947-1956 she won ten titles straight - something that never happened before, nor since.

In 1946 she was noticed by two black doctors who were active in the tennis community, and they took her under their wing. Hubert Eaton of North Carolina and Robert W. Johnson of Virginia hosted Althea at different times of the year - Eaton during the school year, Johnson in the summer - each taking Althea into their family and supporting her emotionally and financially.

Not only did the two men provide tennis instruction but they helped set her back on a path towards academics - Althea returned to high school for her last three years, and graduated in 1949 in Wilmington, North Carolina.

US Nationals

By 1950 Althea had won the national black women's tennis championship four times, but the US Championship at Forest Hills still denied her entry. They had never had a black person play before, and they denied her entry because of it.

This appalled Alice Marble, Wimbledon and US Championship winner in 1939. Aware of her considerable influence on the game's governing body, Alice wrote to American Tennis Magazine, stating that "If tennis is a game of ladies and gentlemen, it is 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 is only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts.”

Not happy with this statement but unable to see any other way forward, the US Ladies Tennis Association relented - Althea would be allowed to play.

Althea later described how aware she was of her barrier-breaking role position - it was a lot of pressure, and it would be years before she would be comfortable and secure in her abilities. As it was, she felt the responsibility of being the sport's only representative from the black race every time she stepped on the court, and the weight of her belief that if she lost, she would be letting down her entire race.

Althea would advance to the second round at the championship where she faced Louise Brough, winner for the previous three Wimbledons. The women played in the rain for three sets and Althea was defeated, but had played well enough to attract attention in the national media.

International Play

Althea was readily accepted into the singles draw for the championship at Wimbledon in 1951 but faced discrimination from her own American team. The other players would not speak to her, and she could not find a partner with whom to play doubles.

Over the next few years Althea continued to play in national and international championships, adjusting  to the stronger competition but still facing discrimination in both training and tournaments at home.

She remained unwelcome in some of the country clubs where championships were held and had to enter and exit through a different door than the white players. She was not always allowed access to the changing rooms and courts, and in some cases was only allowed to practice on the courts after everyone else had gone home. Althea would later joke that this taught her to know instinctively where the ball was going even without looking, as she had trained in the dark.

By 1952 she was ranked No. 9 among American women, but it would take another 4 years of playing and training hard before she grabbed her first major title.

Playing to Win

In 1956 at the French Championships Althea faced defending champion Angela Mortimer in Paris, and won in two sets. Teamed up with Englishwoman Angela Buxton, a long-time supporter and friend who witnessed the discrimination Althea faced from her own teammates, she won the women's doubles in Paris, and also Wimbledon.

The appearance of a doubles team of mixed ethnicity was a big enough deal that Angela Buxton would later be credited with helping Althea "break the color barrier" by offering to play with Althea, but Angela rejects that notion - "I knew racial issues would be included in my legacy, but that is not what I was thinking about. Althea had become my friend, and it was mutually beneficial for us to play together."

Not stopping there, Althea would also win singles tournament titles that year at the Italian, Pacific Southwest, New South Wales, Pan American, South Australian, and Asian Championships. She also reached the final of the US Nationals and played Shirley Fry, who beat Althea in two sets.

In 1957 Althea returned with a vengeance. She won Wimbledon by beating Darlene Hard in two sets, then defeated Louise Brough for the US Championship. Paired with Hard, she also won the women's doubles title at Wimbledon, and won mixed doubles with Kurt Nielsen at US Championships.

Gibson in 1957
Overwhelmed with her success at Wimbledon, Althea could only say "At last! At least!" after being presented with the trophy by Queen Elizabeth.

"Shaking hands with the Queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus going into downtown Wilmington, North Carolina," she would later say.

Despite her success, Althea continued to face discrimination. She was denied rooms at hotels, and one refused to book reservations for a luncheon in her honor. By this time, Althea stated that she no longer cared. "I tried to feel responsibilities to Negroes, but that was a burden on my shoulders," she said in 1957. "Now I'm playing tennis to please me, not them."

This attitude paid off, and in 1958 Althea won the Wimbledon and US Championship Singles titles. She also won her third consecutive Wimbledon's doubles title, this time with Maria Bueno.

In 1957, she was voted by the Associated Press as its Female Athlete of the Year. She would win the honor again in 1958. In 1957, she graced the cover of TIME Magazine.

Financial Issues Return

Though Althea was winning championships, it was not earning her any money - there was no professional tennis tour, and no prize money in those days. She turned to the sport of golf and played professionally for a while, also breaking color barriers in this sport, but she did not distinguish herself enough for it to be profitable.

She began teaching tennis in her 40s to earn money but after her second husband died, she became withdrawn and sank further into financial difficulty. After a call to her friend Angela Buxton for help, the tennis community rallied around her and raised funds to help pay some of her medical bills, and help her get by.

This helped for a while but in 2003 when Althea died, she had very little money and was alone. She had been inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, and was one of the first six women to by inducted into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame, a huge accomplishment.

Yet for all of these accomplishments (including a ticker-tape parade in New York City following her Championship win at Wimbledon in 1957), Althea was banned from using the facilities at some sports clubs and had to change in the car, or be banned from playing altogether (as was the case when she played professional golf).

Her story endures not only as someone who made it possible for stars like Arthur Ashe, Serena and Venus Williams, and others to succeed in the sport, but as an example of what could happen without the pension funds that are in place for tennis professionals today.


"No matter what accomplishments you make, someone helped you."

"In the field of sports you are more of less accepted for what you do rather than who you are."

"I don't want to be put on a pedestal. I just want to be reasonably successful and live a normal life with all the conveniences to make it so."

  • Althea Gibson broke barriers, Larry Schwartz,, 2016.
  • Althea Gibson, Golfer, Tennis Player, Athlete -, 2016.
  • Before Serena Williams: 8 Amazing Facts about the tennis Icon Althea Gibson, The Fat Cat Collective, August 27th, 2015.
  • Althea Gibson by Richard Evans, The Tennis Vault, February 2016.

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