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Althea Gibson

Date:
2015-07-11

Synopsis

Althea Gibson was born in South Carolina on August 25, 1927. At an early age, she developed a love of sport. Her great talent was in tennis, but in the 1940s and '50s, most tournaments were closed to African Americans. Gibson kept playing (and winning) until her skills could no longer be denied, and in 1951, she became the first African American to play at Wimbledon. Gibson won the women's singles and doubles at Wimbledon in 1957, and won the U.S. Open in 1958.

Early Life

Althea Neale Gibson was born on August 25, 1927, in Silver, South Carolina. Gibson blazed a new trail in the sport of tennis, winning some of the sport's biggest titles in the 1950s, and broke racial barriers in professional golf as well.

At a young age, Gibson moved with her family to Harlem, a neighborhood in the borough of New York City. Gibson's life at this time had its hardships. Her family struggled to make ends meet, living on public assistance for a time, and Gibson struggled in the classroom, often skipping school all together. However, Gibson loved to play sports—especially table tennis—and she soon made a name for herself as a local table tennis champion. Her skills were eventually noticed by musician Buddy Walker, who invited her to play tennis on local courts.

After winning several tournaments hosted by the local recreation department, Gibson was introduced to the Harlem River Tennis Courts in 1941. Incredibly, just a year after picking up a racket for the first time, she won a local tournament sponsored by the American Tennis Association, an African-American organization established to promote and sponsor tournaments for black players. She picked up two more ATA titles in 1944 and 1945. Then, after losing one title in 1946, Gibson won 10 straight championships from 1947 to 1956. Amidst this winning streak, she made history as the first African-American tennis player to compete at both the U.S. National Championships (1950) and Wimbledon (1951).

Making History

Gibson's success at those ATA tournaments paved the way for her to attend Florida A&M University on a sports scholarship. She graduated from the school in 1953, but it was a struggle for her to get by. At one point, she even thought of leaving sports all together to join the U.S. Army. A good deal of her frustration had to do with the fact that so much of the tennis world was closed off to her. The white-dominated, white-managed sport was segregated in the United States, as was the world around it.

The breaking point came in 1950, when Alice Mable, a former tennis No. 1 herself, wrote a piece in American Lawn Tennis magazine lambasting her sport for denying a player of Gibson's caliber to compete in the world's best tournaments. Mable's article caught notice, and by 1952—just one year after becoming the first black player to compete at Wimbledon—Gibson was a Top 10 player in the United States. She went on to climb even higher, to No. 7 by 1953.

 

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