Althea Neale Gibson was born on August 25, 1927 in Sliver, Clarendon County, South Carolina to sharecroppers Dannie and Annie Bell Gibson. She was the oldest of five siblings. At a young age, Althea’s family moved to Harlem, New York City where they faced hardships making ends meet. Because of these hardships she often skipped school, but she showed an interest in sports, especially tennis early on. She became a local celebrity because of her skills at table (or paddle) tennis. Musician Buddy Walker noticed her talents and invited her to play tennis on local courts. By age 12, she became New York City’s women’s paddle tennis champion. In 1941, Althea entered and won her very first tournament, the American Tennis Association (ATA) New York State Championship. In 1944 and 1945, Althea won the ATA’s national championship girls’ division and after losing in 1946, she won one of ten straight ATA women’s titles in 1947.
Althea’s success won the attention of Dr. Walter Lynchburg and Dr. Hubert A. Eaton. Under their patronage Althea was able to gained access to more advanced instruction and major competitions, eventually landing a membership to the USTA (United States Tennis Association). In 1946, she moved to Wilmington, North Carolina and enrolled in Williston High School. In 1949, she became the first Black Woman and second Black athlete to play the USTA’s National Indoor Championship where she reached the quarter finals. Shortly thereafter, she entered Florida’s A & M University on a full athletic scholarship. Throughout her career she faced many obstacles because of rampant racism in sports, but she did not give up on achieving her dreams of become a pro athlete.
At 23, Althea was the first Black player ever selected to compete in the 1950 United States National Championships (now the U.S. open) . She lost narrowly in the second round in the three-set match to opponent Louise Brough, but her participation garnered national and international attention:
“No Negro player, man or woman, has ever set foot on one of these courts,” wrote journalist Lester Rodney at the time. “In many ways, it is even a tougher personal Jim Crowbusting assignment than was Jackie Robinson‘s when he first stepped out of the Brooklyn Dodgers dugout.”
Althea won her first international title in 1951 at the Caribbean Championships in Jamaica and became the first Black competitor at Wimbledon and was defeated in the third round by her opponent, Beverly Baker. She ranked seventh in the nation by the USTA in 1952. In 1956, Althea became the first African-American to win the Grand Slam event, the French Open Singles Championship, winning the doubles title partnered with Briton Angela Buxton. Later in the season, she won the Wimbledon doubles championship with Angela Buxton, the Italian national championship in Rome, and the Asian championship in Ceylon. She reached the quarter-finals in singles at Wimbledon and the finals at U.S. Nationals, losing both to opponent Shirley Fry.
In July 1957, Althea won Wimbledon, the first Black champion in the competition’s 80-year history and the first champion to receive the award personally from Queen Elizabeth II; she also won the doubles championship for the second year. After her return from Wimbledon, she was honored in New York City’s Ticker Tape Parade and received the Bronze Medallion, the city’s highest civilian honor. A month later, she defeated Brough in straight set winning her first U.S. National Championship. She is quoted as saying, “Winning Wimbledon was wonderful, and it meant a lot to me. But there is nothing quite like winning the championship of your own country.” She reached the finals of eight Grand Slam events in 1957 winning the Wimbledon and U.S. National singles titles, Wimbledon and Australian doubles championships, the U.S. mixed doubles crown, and finishing second in the Australian singles, U.S. doubles, and Wimbledon mixed doubles. At the end of the season, she broke another barrier as the first Black player on the Wightman Cup Team, defeating Great Britain 6-1.
In 1958, Althea won her third straight Wimbledon doubles championship and was ranked as the number one woman in tennis; in the U.S. and the world. Associated press named her Female Athlete of the Year in both 1957 and 1958. She was also the first Black Woman to grace the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time.
Althea retired from amateur tennis in 1958 after winning 56 national and international singles and doubles titles. She began to pursue a career in professional tennis, however it did not go anywhere. She was quoted as saying:
“When I looked around me, I saw that white tennis players, some of whom I had thrashed on the court, were picking up offers and invitations, suddenly it dawned on me that my triumphs had not destroyed the racial barrier once and for all, as I had—perhaps naively—hoped. Or if I did destroy them, they had been erected behind me again.”
Althea became the first African-American Woman to join the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association) tour in 1964. Racism continued to be a barrier. In parts of the North and throughout the South she was banned from hotels and country clubs and was not allowed to compete. When she was allowed to compete she was forced to dress for tournaments in her car. Althea was the LPGA’s top 50 money winners for five years, however her lifetime golf earnings never exceeded $25, 000. She made ends meet through sponsorship deals and the support of her husband William Darben (married 1965-1976). She broke individual records in individual rounds in several tournaments and ranked 27th in 1966, her highest ranking. Althea’s best tournament finish was second after a three-way playoff at the Len Immke Buick Open in 1970. She retired from professional golf in 1978 season’s end.
In early 2003, Althea suffered a heart attack and survived, but she passed away on September 28, 2003 at age 76 from complications from respiratory and bladder infections.
Althea paved the way for the Williams sisters and other persons of color to compete and win championships in tennis. At the time she began playing less than 5% of tennis newcomers were persons of color. Today, 30% of tennis newcomers are minorities, mostly (two-thirds) Black.
The then USTA President Alan Schwartz at the opening night of the 2007 U.S. Open, said of Althea
“It was the quiet dignity with which Althea carried herself during the turbulent days of the 1950s that was truly remarkable
That same night Althea was inducted into the US Open Court of Champions.
Zina Garrison, the next Black Woman to reach Wimbledon after Althea said of her role model and predecessor
Althea used to say she wanted me to be the one who broke her barrier, to take
the burden off of her [as the only black woman to have won Wimbledon], She showed me the stall where she dressed and where she popped the champagne when she won. She knew she opened the door for all of us, and she was so excited about all the women who followed her.
When Althea passed away her current successor Venus Williams said of her:
I am grateful to Althea Gibson for having the strength and courage to break through the racial barriers in tennis. Althea Gibson was the first African-American woman to rank number one and win Wimbledon, and I am honored to have followed in such great footsteps.
I Salute this AMAZING Her-story making sista!