Born on August 28, 1927, in the small town of Silver, South Carolina, Althea Gibson knew nothing of her parents’ sharecropping life after moving to New York’s Harlem three years later.
According to her 1958 autobiography, Gibson was a “wild, arrogant girl” who hated school and defended herself by using her fists. She was a talented athlete, excelling at multiple sports. After mastering paddle tennis at 12, Gibson learned competitive tennis.
Fred Johnson, a one-armed pro at Harlem’s Cosmopolitan Tennis Club, coached Gibson and eventually put her on the Black American Tennis Association (ATA) circuit. At almost six feet tall, the gangly teen’s power overwhelmed more experienced players, but her unsportsmanlike attitude quickly rubbed them the wrong way.
Though Gibson lost at the 1946 ATA championships in Wilberforce, Ohio, the exposure got the attention of two tennis-playing physicians from the South, who took charge of her development from there.
In the summer of 1946, Gibson moved into the home of Dr. Hubert Eaton in Wilmington, North Carolina. She continued with her high school studies and practiced on Eaton’s backyard court. Once school was over, she moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, and spent the summer with Dr. Robert W. Johnson. The year-round opportunity to continually hone her tennis skills helped turn Gibson into a more disciplined young woman. In 1947, she won the first of 10 consecutive ATA women’s champions. In 1949, Gibson became the first Black woman and the second Black athlete (after Reginal Weir) to play the USTA’s National Indoor Championships, where she reached the quarter-finals.
Even with her growing reputation as an elite-level player, Gibson was still barred from entering the premier American tournament, the United States National Championships (now the US Open) at Forest Hills. While USTA rules officially prohibited racial or ethnic discrimination, players could only qualify for the Nationals by accumulating points at sanctioned tournaments, most of which occurred at white-only clubs. In 1950, retired champion Alice Marble wrote a blistering open letter in the American Lawn Tennis magazine, garnering support from some ATA officials. Along with some lobbying, Gibson became the first Black player to receive an invitation to compete in the Nationals, where she made her debut shortly before her 23rd birthday. Although reigning Wimbledon champion and former US National winner Louise Brough narrowly beat Gibson, the national and international exposure she received was extensive.
In the words of Gibson herself, the 1957 season was “Althea Gibson’s year.” In July, she was seeded first at Wimbledon—considered at the time the “world championship of tennis”—and defeated Darlene Hard in the finals for the singles title. She was the first Black champion in the tournament’s 80-year history and the first to receive the trophy personally from Queen Elizabeth II. Upon returning to the United States, Gibson became only the second Black American, after Jesse Owens, to be honored with a ticker-tape parade in New York City. Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. awarded her the Bronze Medallion, the city’s highest civilian award. A month later, Gibson defeated Brough in straight sets to win her first US National Championship. “Winning Wimbledon was wonderful,” she wrote, “and it meant a lot to me. But there is nothing quite like winning the championship of your own country.”
In 1958, Gibson successfully defended her Wimbledon and US National singles titles and won her third straight Wimbledon doubles championship, with a third different partner. She was the number-one-ranked woman in the world. She was named Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press in 1957 and 1958, garnering over 80% of votes in 1958. She also became the first Black woman to appear on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time magazines.
After winning 56 national and international singles and doubles titles, Gibson retired from amateur tennis in 1958. At that time, there was no prize money at major tournaments, and direct endorsement deals were prohibited. During this time, Gibson tried her hand in the entertainment industry. A talented vocalist and saxophonist, she released an album, Aletha Gibson Sings, in 1959. Sales of the album were disappointing, however.
In 1964, at age 37, Gibson became the first African American woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour. She continued to endure racial discrimination. People of color were excluded from many hotels throughout the South – and some in the North – preventing her from competing. She’d often have to dress in her car if she did compete because she was banned from the clubhouse. Despite being one of the LPGA’s top 50 money winners for five years, her lifetime golf earnings never exceeded $25,000.
Althea Gibson died at the age of 76, on September 28, 2003, from complications following respiratory and bladder infections. Gibson’s five Wimbledon trophies are displayed at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. She was inducted into the US Open Court of Champions in 2007. At the opening ceremony of the 2007 US Open, USTA president Alan Schwartz said, “It was the quiet dignity with which Althea carried herself during the turbulent days of the 1950s that was truly remarkable.”