Many people may not know the story of Althea Gibson, but her role in breaking color barriers in sports make her legacy everlasting.
Gibson was known for being a phenomenal tennis player, winning five singles Grand Slam titles, but she also made her mark on the golf course becoming the first African American woman to compete in a women’s professional golf tour.
Born on August 25, 1972, Althea Gibson was born in 1927 to two sharecroppers in South Carolina, but was quickly relocated to Harlem, New York after the Great Depression. In Harlem, Gibson became known for her tremendous athletic ability, especially for her skill in tennis. She dominated table tennis – becoming a local champion – and moved on to the real game in the early 1940s.
Gibson won the very first tennis tournament she entered. After just one year of playing organized tennis, she one her first American Tennis Association (ATA) sponsored-tournament, which was an organization specifically catered toward African American tennis players because of the racial makeup of the sports during that time period.
Her skill and talent was so undeniable after winning two national championships and 10 straight ATA tournaments that it got the attention of former No. 1-ranked player, Alice Marble, who advocated for Gibson and criticized the sport for excluding such a talent.
In 1950, she appeared in her very first U.S. National Championships and in 1951, she appeared in Wimbledon, becoming the first African American to play in the tournament. Fast forward to 1956, she won her very first French Open, then, in 1957, Gibson became the first African American woman to win Wimbledon, defeating Darlene Hard 6-3 and 6-2, respectively.
For context, Arthur Ashe became the very first African American male to win a singles tournament at Wimbledon…in 1975. Gibson would go on to win 56 singles in doubles championships in her marvelous career and was later inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.
Her accomplishments didn’t stop there. She competed in 171 LPGA events, with her best finish being a tie for second place at the 1970 Len Immke Buick Open, and became the first African American woman to win AP Female Athlete of the Year in 1957 and 1958.
Once her professional career ended, Gibson began focusing on outreach and giving back to the community. She became thee director of women’s sports and recreation for the Essex County Parks Commission in New Jersey and began the Pepsi Cola’s national mobile tennis project, a program that brought portable nets and tennis equipment to underprivileged areas. Over the next three decades of her life, she coached numerous budding stars such as Zina Garrison and Leslie Allen.
Although she admittedly never considered herself to be a pioneer or a lightning rod for equality, Gibson will go down as one of the more under appreciated, yet impactful legacy sports has to offer. Whether she saw herself as a trailblazer or not, Gibson paved the way for a myriad of African Americans and women athletes.