Althea Gibson was a tennis player and later professional golfer who became the first African American woman to cross the racial barrier and compete professionally in both sports. She was born on August 25, 1927 in South Carolina. Her family was under severe financial duress due to the Great Depression, and moved to Harlem to find better work and support themselves. She was of an athletic nature from a young age and was a skilled table tennis player. At the age of 12, she had become New York’s women’s table tennis champion. Her family and friends recognized her talent from an early age and rallied together to gather funds for her training in lawn tennis. She acquired a junior membership to get lessons at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club in Harlem. Because of the strict racial divide, she was not allowed to enter the club or play during daylight hours while the other members were present. As a result, she learnt at night, when the lines weren’t even clearly visible. Gibson later stated that this helped her to get a very accurate idea of where the lines were without even being able to see them, which contributed to her later professional success.
She won her first professional tournament, the American Tennis Association New York State Championship, in 1941 at the age of 14. She won again in 1944 and 1945 before losing in the final in 1946. After that she won the title for 10 straight years from 1947 to 1956. Her prowess was noted in many circles and she gained the support of a Virginian doctor named Walter Johnson, who supported her training and helped her gain access to more professional tournaments and competitions. In 1946, she moved to North Carolina where she enrolled in high school, and later Florida A&M University on a full athletic scholarship.
In 1950, she was invited to play at the United States National Championships (later renamed the U.S. Open) due to an article written in her support by Alice Marble. She made it to the second round and her participation received wide media attention. It was a huge step for an African American to compete professionally in a major sporting event at a time when racial barriers were considered the norm. Althea Gibson won her first international tournament in Jamaica in 1951 and the same year, became the first African American to compete at Wimbledon. By 1953, her ranking had risen to World # 7 and in 1956 she won her first Grand Slam event, the French Open followed by the Wimbledon title in 1957. She was the first African American to win Wimbledon and against the norm, was awarded her trophy personally by Queen Elizabeth II. In 1957 and 1958 she was named Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press. She was also the first black woman to appear on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time Magazine. Despite her professional success, she was struggling financially and often played exhibition matches to make ends meet.
After retirement from professional tennis in 1971, Gibson competed professionally in golf tournaments, although she could not achieve the same level of success. She was also a talented saxophonist and singer and made her debut singing at the Apollo Theatre’s amateur talent contest in 1943. She recorded an album and also performed on the Ed Sullivan Show. Althea Gibson began suffering from heart problems and died on September 28, 2003 at the age of 76. She is remembered as a pioneer and one of the most talented professional tennis players of all time.