Happy Birthday to Althea Gibson, the First African American Tennis & Golf Champion 

– Preview of the documentary film, Althea

Many people think of Arthur Ashe as the first black person to win Wimbledon or the US Open (1975 and 1968, respectively). Arthur was indeed the first African American male to win those men’s singles titles; however, Althea Gibson was the first black athlete to cross the color line in international tennis. 

Born this day in 1927 in Silver, SC, Althea Gibson was a professional tennis player and golfer. Gibson was the first person of African descent to win a Grand Slam title, doing so at the French Open in 1956. In 1957 and 1958, she won both Wimbledon and the U.S. National Championships (the precursor of the U.S. Open). In total, she won 11 Grand Slam titles – 5 singles and 6 doubles – and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. Gibson is hailed to date as one of the greatest players who ever lived by many commentators, coaches, and other tennis players. 

Growing up as a tomboy in love with sports, Gibson played basketball and learned tennis on the streets until she met Buddy Walker. Walker introduced Gibson to The Cosmopolitan Club, a private black tennis club in New York City, where Gibson met her first coach Fred Johnson. Though an athletic prodigy, Gibson, having come up as a street kid, lacked sportsmanship. However, with the help of two African-American physicians, Dr. Hubert Eaton of Wilmington, NC and Dr. Robert W. Johnson of Lynchburg, VA (who later became Arthur’s lifelong coach and mentor), Gibson honed her skills, learned the sport’s etiquette, and flourished. Gibson started developing her career as a tennis player under the aegis of the American Tennis Association (ATA). 

Based in Largo, MD, the ATA is the oldest African-American sports organization promoting tennis as a sport for black people. The ATA was the black counterpart to the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA), which was exclusive to whites and later became the United States Tennis Association (USTA). The ATA continued to be the main governing body for African-American tennis players even after Althea Gibson competed in the U.S. National Championships in 1950 as the first African-American player. 

In fact, Gibson was initially not invited to the U.S. Nationals because of her race. Even after her two victories winning the ATA black women’s championship, which proved her qualifications as a professional player, the USLTA still refused to let her compete with other white pros at the tournament. However, four-time U.S. Nationals champion Alice Marble defended Gibson in an open letter to “American Lawn Tennis” magazine, stating, “If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of players, then it’s only fair that they meet this challenge on the courts.” In response to this public denunciation, the USLTA relinquished and invited Gibson to the tournament, which consequently led to the desegregation of the organization. 

Considering the times in which she lived, Gibson’s achievements were impressive. After competing in the U.S. Nationals, Gibson broke the color barrier at Wimbledon as well. Gibson won her first major in the 1956 French Championships and cemented her status as a tennis queen by becoming the first black player to win at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals.  

Despite her victories on the court, however, Gibson’s financial situation was “in heartbreaking shape,” as she described. Prior to the Open Era, players received neither any monetary prize at major tournaments nor direct endorsement deals. Accordingly, even after having won 56 national and international singles and doubles titles, including 11 Grand Slam championships, Gibson was basically broke when she retired from her amateur career in tennis. To quote her, “being the Queen of Tennis is all well and good, but you can’t eat a crown.” 

After her resignation, Gibson became a professional golfer. Gibson broke racial barriers again by becoming the first African-American woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour in 1964. Yet, problems of racial discrimination continued to bother her: many hotels and country clubs were still segregated and therefore did not let Gibson stay or compete. Even when she did compete, she was not allowed to be in the clubhouse, so she had to dress for tournaments in her car. But she never gave up; instead, she achieved her highest ranking at 27th in 1966 and she had her best tournament finish at the 1970 Len Immke Buick Open. Gibson retired from professional golf at the end of the 1978 season.     

In honor of her birthday, PBS will be presenting a 90-minute biographical documentary Althea (2014) nationwide on Friday, September 4th at 9 pm during the U.S. Open. The film depicts the life of Althea from her roots as a sharecropper’s daughter to her glory as the reigning champion of highly segregated tennis court in the 1950s.

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