During the 1950s, tennis great Althea Gibson challenged the far-reaching racial barriers of the tennis world to earn many of the game’s highest honors. In a sport dominated by wealthy athletes trained at elite country clubs, this was no small feat for an African-American high school dropout raised in Harlem.
Though she was born to sharecroppers in South Carolina, Gibson moved with her family to New York in search of greater economic opportunity. They settled in Harlem where Gibson enrolled in public school. A rebellious girl, Gibson didn’t take well to school and regularly skipped classes; when she was present, she found it difficult to get along with teachers. As a result of her truancy and behavioral problems, she was threatened with reform school. Gibson dropped out of school at fourteen. She was unable to hold a job and soon wound up as a ward of the state.
She was introduced to paddleball by a Police Athletic League sports program. A city recreation department worker immediately recognized her innate talent for the game and bought her a proper, if second hand, tennis racquet. He also introduced her to members of the New York Cosmopolitan Club. Members of the interracial club were so impressed by Gibson’s skillful performance on the court that they invited her to become a junior member and take lessons with the club’s resident tennis pro.
After just a year of lessons, she won the 1941 New York State Open competition. By 1945 she had won two New York State Negro Girls’ Championships and her first National Negro Girls’ Championship title. Her success earned her the attention of two prominent surgeons who offered Gibson free tennis lessons and room and board if she agreed to return to high school. Gibson accepted and moved to North Carolina where she lived with the family of one of her sponsors and trained on their private tennis court while she earned her diploma. Her play continued to improve and in 1948, Gibson earned her second Negro National Championship. This would be the first of nine consecutive victories in this competition.
Gibson was encouraged to try to compete in major tennis tournaments, though most were open only to white athletes. In 1950, she was denied admittance to the National Grass Court Championship because the host club, Forrest Hills in Long Island, was not open to African Americans. Gibson supporter and prominent member of the tennis community, Alice Marble, wrote an editorial in American Lawn Tennis calling for an end to the blatant racism in the sport. The tennis community responded and Gibson was soon invited to many major competitions, including the Forrest Hills grass court tournament.
In 1957, Gibson became the first black player to compete at Wimbledon, tennis’s most renowned tournament. She won both the singles and doubles competition that year. Later the same year she won the national tournament at Forrest Hills. She repeated these victories in 1958. Though she was at the top of her sport and only thirty years old, Gibson wasn’t able to make enough money to support herself and was forced to retire from competition. After her retirement, her fame led to product endorsements and even a role in The Horse Soldier, a Hollywood western directed by John Ford and staring John Wayne.
In the 1960s, Gibson took on another elite sport when she joined the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour. She was the first African American invited to compete in golf’s top tournaments. Gibson played well, but she never achieved the levels of success she had enjoyed in tennis. After retiring from professional athletics, Gibson dedicated herself to developing sports programs in her adopted homestate, New Jersey.