Althea Gibson is noted not only for her exceptional abilities as a tennis player, but for breaking the color barrier in the 1950s as the first African American to compete in national and international tennis.
Born in Silver, South Carolina, in 1927, Althea Gibson became the dominant female athlete of the late 1950s in a sport well known for its custom of racial segregation. Tennis was not Gibson's first sport; instead, she shot pool, bowled, and played basketball. She even boxed a little.
During the Depression the Gibson family moved north to Harlem. When she was ten years old, Gibson became involved with the Police Athletic League (PAL) movement known as "play streets." Essentially, PAL was an attempt to help troubled children establish work habits they would use later in life. In 1940 in Harlem, PAL promoted paddleball. After three summers of paddleball competition Gibson was so good that the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club sponsored her to learn the game of tennis and proper social behavior.
In 1942 Gibson began winning tournaments sponsored by the American Tennis Association (ATA), the black counterpart to the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA). In 1944 and 1945 Gibson won the ATA National Junior Championships. In 1946 Gibson was recognized by politically astute blacks as a player who could help break down institutionalized racism in the United States. Sponsored by Hubert Eaton and Walter Johnson and inspired by Sugar Ray Robinson, Gibson soon dominated every event on the ATA schedule. By the beginning of the 1950s she was ready to endure the hardship of breaking the color barrier in tennis.
Gibson had a powerful ally: four-time U.S. singles and doubles champion Alice Marble. The USLTA finally allowed Gibson to play in the 1950 Nationals when Marble intervened on her behalf. Gibson lost her first match of the tournament, but the entrance had been made. Over the next several years Gibson rose in the USLTA rankings (ninth in 1952, seventh in 1953). After a year of touring the world, playing special events for the U.S. State Department, Gibson staged a full-scale assault on the tennis world in 1956. That year she won the French Open in both singles and doubles.
Over the next two years Gibson was the dominant women's tennis player in the world. In 1957 and 1958 she won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals. In 1958 she wrote a book about her life called I Always Wanted to Be Somebody.
Tom Biracree, Althea Gibson (New York: Chelsea House, 1989).
Betty Millsaps Jones, Wonder Women of Sports (New York: Random House, 1981).
Pat Ross, ed., Young and Female: Turning Points in the Lives of Eight American Women, Personal Accounts (New York: Random House, 1972).