Just a few years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, Althea Gibson did the same in tennis. After being raised in Harlem, she was the first Black American to be invited to the U.S. Nationals (now the U.S. Open) in 1950 and later won the French Open, and then Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals in back to back years (1957 & 1958). But one racial barrier didn’t seem to be enough. In the 1960’s she became the first Black woman to qualify for the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour.
There are two distinct moments of Trajectory for Althea Gibson. The first is that two Black doctors who loved tennis, saw her unique athleticism early in her tennis career, sponsored her and moved her to live with one of them in Wilmington, North Carolina. She would have never gotten her educational path (she attended Florida A&M, an HBCU, on a full athletic scholarship) or tennis path figured out without them. Then as she was winning every conceivable trophy in Black tennis tournaments, former tennis champion Alice Marble wrote a scathing open letter in American Lawn Tennis magazine demanding that Althea Gibson be allowed to play in the top tournaments, usually held at White only clubs. From this letter and the intense lobbying that followed, Gibson received an invitation to the 1950 U.S. Nationals.
Born in South Carolina in 1927, Althea Gibson’s family moved to Harlem when she was three. Her father was abusive and she had little interest in school. But her athletic talents were easy to see and she was a prodigy at table and paddle tennis. Her neighbors pitched in to get her lessons at a local tennis facility in Harlem. She won the American Tennis Association National Championship (for Black tennis players only) 12 of 13 years starting in 1944. She would go on to win 10 major titles in singles and doubles and was the number one ranked player in the world in 1957. Players in those days had to remain amateurs, so Althea relied on her personal sponsors to pay her expenses. She later turned professional and got paid to play exhibition matches before Harlem Globetrotter basketball games. She then earned her way on to the LPGA tour in the 1960’s which by today’s standards is simply amazing. Although she did not have much success, she grew her notoriety. Although Althea never willingly carried the banner as a pioneer on racial issues, she was a pioneer nonetheless. Arthur Ashe and the Williams sisters followed in her footsteps. Venus Williams wrote “her accomplishments set the stage for my success, and through players like myself and Serena and many others to come, her legacy will live on.”