Howard: The Jackie Robinson of Tennis - Althea Gibson
Many people remember Arthur Ashe, the first African American to win a Grand Slam tournament; you might remember Jackie Robinson, the first black to play Major League Baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, but how many tennis players even know the name of Althea Gibson, a woman of color who had so many firsts that it’s tough to even keep track?
Born in August of 1927, Althea spent most of her early childhood in Harlem, NY - the child of sharecroppers until they moved from South Carolina.
The sports fields where she lived were closed to blacks until dark, yet Althea became at the age of 12 the NYC women’s paddle tennis champion. In 1940 she was exposed to the game of tennis and by 1941 won the ATA (American Tennis Association) girls singles title. But from 1947 to 1957 she went on to win the Women’s Championship 10 years straight!
At 5’ 11”, Gibson was not only naturally talented, but an out and out gifted athlete in whatever she tried. Unfortunately there were many barriers to break.
Since the white world wouldn’t let her play in their tournaments, there was no way for her to obtain a ranking, which was needed to get to be able to compete in the national tournaments, even though her ability level was more than ample to compete with the best.
You can only imagine the frustration when the world you want to be a part of is closed because of racial issues.
Alice Marble, the number one player in the world for many years wrote a piece in the American Lawn Tennis magazine lambasting the sport for denying Gibson entry into the world’s best tournaments in 1950 and Althea was finally invited to play. She had to go in through the back door, play and then leave through the back door, sleep in her car as she traveled from one tournament to the next, but she was getting noticed and her ranking was going up.
The “Black” barrier was finally broken in the world of tennis by Althea when at the age of 23 she got to play in the 1950 U.S. Championships. Later in 1951 she won her first international title and also became the first black woman to play at Wimbledon.
Prior to 1968 there was no money to be made playing amateur tennis, except sometimes under the table or getting reimbursed for your expenses, so most players also had other jobs to make a living. Gibson was no different.
In the spring of 1953 she graduated from Florida A&M and took a job teaching physical education in Jefferson City, Missouri.
In 1956 Althea became the first African-American to win a Grand Slam tournament, the French Championships in singles and in doubles. She also won doubles titles at Wimbledon, the Italian, the Indian Championships and in Asian at Ceyton.
But 1957 was to be her breakthrough season.. Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships went to her in singles and 6 other Grand Slam doubles titles. She also became the first black women to play on the Wightman Cup team.
Number one in the world and #1 in the U.S. Not bad for a sharecropper’s daughter who never considered herself a crusader.
In 58’ she was also #1 and named Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press, and on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time.
In 1959 she turned pro, and then went in many directions over and beyond tennis. She became the first LPGA professional (as a woman of color), made a record, was in a movie, played tennis exhibitions and more.
You can look up and read more about this amazing woman, and maybe the two books she wrote, because this column doesn’t do her justice.
A door opener for so many black women (and men) who followed in her wake, Althea Gibson, a name we all should know and remember.
Chris Howard is a local USPTA Tennis Professional with over 45 years in the racquet and fitness industry. He can be reached at 928-642-6775 or email@example.com.