(Sunrise: Aug. 25, 1927 – Sunset: Sept. 28, 2003)
When Althea Gibson was born, tennis, like many facets of American society, was rigidly segregated. She was born on August 25, 1927 in Silver, South Carolina. At the age of three, her parents, Daniel and Anne Gibson, moved to New York, where she grew up in the rough and tumble life of Harlem. She graduated from junior high school in 1941 and was transferred to Yorkville Trade School.
Her school years were somewhat disappointing to her parents because she was not an A-student nor did she seem to be college-bound, a quality that Black parents strenuously pushed for in their children to help ease the pain and the strain of segregation and discrimination. It was during that time that the magnetism of tennis captured young Gibson’s imagination. She had found her niche and began playing paddle tennis.
After winning some medals in local competitions, she was observed by Buddy Walker who took her to the Harlem River Cosmopolitan Tennis Courts where her game improved by leaps-and-bounds. Along the way, she also met Juan Serrell, a schoolteacher, who took her to his tennis club where she further developed her aptitude, and fine-tuned her skills. Around 1942, she played in her first tournament in the New York Open Championship where she reached the finals.
It is important to note that the social climate at that time, made Gibson a target of race-haters and white racists. While she was playing tennis, she was also battling discrimination. In addition, unlike Jackie Robinson, whose color line breakthrough was lauded as being historic, her breaking the color barrier in tennis went largely unheralded. However, she persevered and prevailed like so many other Blacks in similar racial situations.
Then two Black physicians, Drs. Hubert Eaton and Walter Johnson, themselves avid tennis players, took a serious interest in Gibson’s career and began to guide her down the professional path. Through their efforts, she received better training and instructions, and began to participate in more recognized competitions. She had a sterling amateur career during the late forties and fifties. She won 56 singles and doubles before being recognized for her athletic ability, skill and grace in professional tennis. She was the first and the “only” which was very lonely at that time. In 1951, she won her first international title, the Caribbean Championship in Montego Bay, Jamaica. From there, she went on to win 11 major titles including the French Championship in 1956; prestigious championships at both Wimbledon and Forest Hills in 1957, and the Australian Doubles and the U.S. Open in the late fifties. In 1957, the Associated Press voted Gibson the Female Athlete of the year. She was presented the Medallion of the City by then New York Mayor Robert Wagner; and she was honored with the ticker tape parade along Broadway for her Wimbledon victory.
Though she made her mark in tennis, Gibson also was an avid golf player. She qualified for the Ladies Professional Golf Association in 1964 and was one of the longest hitters in the game. She played in 171 LPGA tournaments.
Not only did she pioneer the way for tennis greats Arthur Ashe, and Venus and Serena Williams, but Gibson also paved the way for golfing great Tiger Woods.
She recounted her life in her autobiography, I Always Wanted to be Somebody, and left a rich legacy in American history. Gibson died on September 28, 2003.