It’s well known that woman have “historically been the lesser talked about, watched and invested in gender in sports.” Add Black to being female, and I understand why I was today years old when I learned about Althea Gibson.
You also need to know this extraordinary athlete.
In 1950, Althea Gibson broke the color barrier in American tennis when she played in the US National Championships (now known as the US Open). In 1951, she became the first African American to play at Wimbledon.
She continued to break barriers and win tournaments. In 1956, she was the first African American to win the French Championships (now known as the French Open); she also won the doubles.
In 1957, at age 29, she won twice at Wimbledon: on 06 July, the women’s singles; the following day, doubles with Angela Buxton, who was Jewish.
“Shaking hands with the Queen of England,” she wrote in “I Always Wanted to Be Somebody,” her 1958 autobiography, “was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus.”
It would be almost another 20 years before Arthur Ashe would become the first African American man to win at Wimbledon (1975).
The Wimbledon win put her on the cover of TIME the day after her 30th birthday. In September, she won the US Open.
The Associated Press named Gibson, a Black woman, Female Athlete of the Year in 1957 and 1958.
In 1957 and 1958, Gibson was the number one tennis player in the world, according to History.com.
In 1960, she toured with the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, playing exhibition tennis matches before their games. In 1964, Gibson joined the Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour, the first Black woman to do so. The trailblazing athlete played pro golf until 1971, the same year in which she was voted into the National Lawn Tennis Association Hall of Fame.
Southern exodus, tennis prodigy
Gibson was born in Silver, Clarendon County, South Carolina on 25 August 1927. She grew up in New York after her family moved to Harlem around 1930. Although she was a natural at tennis, she could practice only after the court closed, because of segregation.
In 1942, Gibson won her first local American Tennis Association tournament. (At that time, ATA was like the “Negro league” in baseball.) She won an unmatched 10 consecutive national ATA championships (1947-1956).
Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball in 1947. Three years later, in August 1950, Gibson would do the same at the U.S. National Championships in Forest Hills, Queens, New York City.
Gibson was invited because tennis professional Alice Marble, who held 18 Grand Slam titles, was her champion. Marble wrote in the American Lawn Tennis magazine:
“If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge… The entrance of Negroes into national tennis,” the letter added, “is as inevitable as it has proven to be in baseball, in football, or in boxing.”
The 5’11” Gibson faced the favorite, Louise Brough, “a blond Californian and the reigning Wimbledon champion.”
“Fans were shouting from the stands for Althea’s opponent to: ‘Beat the nigger. Beat the nigger,’ ” Bertram Baker, a New York Assemblyman, would recall later.
Gibson was leading by 1-6, 6-3, 7-6 when it began raining buckets. “A bolt of lightning shattered one of the stone eagles atop the stadium,” and officials suspended the game.
The next day, Gibson “was visibly unnerved by the hordes of photographers,” according to the New York Times. Brough won the tournament.
According to tennis professional Leslie Allen, Gibson was allowed to play at the US Open, but only if her presence didn’t disturb the White players.
Althea couldn’t come in the front door. She couldn’t go in the locker room. She couldn’t dine in the dining room. She had to come in the back door, go to the court, kick some butt and exit out the back door.
But how the tables had turned, at least publicly, by 1957. New York City welcomed with a ticker-tape parade when she returned home after the Wimbledon wins.
Reminder that in the 1950s, everyone playing tennis was an amateur. No pro money.
In 2019, the US Open placed a statue of Gibson on the southeast side of Arthur Ashe Stadium. I refer you to my opening statement.
Tennis and segregation
In 1874, Walter C. Wingfield patented the modern form of lawn tennis in Great Britain.
When the USLTA (Currently the USTA) issued a policy statement formally barring African-American tennis players from its competitions, the Association Tennis Club of Washington, DC, and the Monumental Tennis Club of Baltimore, Maryland, conceived the idea of the American Tennis Association (ATA).
The ATA was born when representatives from more than a dozen black tennis clubs met in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 30, 1916.
As Billie Jean King noted in a discussion about Gibson’s career:
Everything was white. The balls, the clothes, the people, the socks, the shoes. Everything.