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Sports Pioneer: Althea Gibson

What makes a sports legend? What is the measure of a successful career? Why isn’t Althea Gibson a household name?

Althea Gibson was born in South Carolina in 1927, where her parents worked on a cotton farm as sharecroppers. When Althea was 3, the Great Depression hit and the family moved to Harlem. Their apartment was on 143rd Street between Lenox and 7th, a designated Police Athletic Area, where traffic was blocked off so children could play organized sports throughout the day. It was on this very street that Althea mastered paddle tennis, becoming the NYC women’s champion by 12.

She played in the American Tennis Association tournament at age 14. She won the New York State title and went on to compete on a national level, winning 10 consecutive titles after 1946. Her massive successes drew attention from people who could help her; Hubert A. Eaton (physician, activist) sponsored her move to North Carolina, where she was mentored by Dr. Robert Johnson. She enrolled in a segregated high school, and ultimately received more opportunities for training and competition.

Support from people who believed in Althea–and her remarkable talent– was essential to the success of her career. She’s often quoted: “I always wanted to be somebody. If I made it, it’s half because I was game enough to take a lot of punishment along the way and half because there were a lot of people who cared enough to help me.” Alice Marble (who’d won 4 US National singles at this point) wrote an article in July 1950 for American Lawn Tennis, lobbying for Althea Gibson’s inclusion. Sara Palfrey, US Doubles Champion, also wrote on every possible competition, allies advocated rigorously for opportunities for her. 

In order to enter the US National Championships, players had to accumulate points through other tournaments, which were often held at white-only clubs. Though it was undeniable that Gibson had the talent to compete at the national level, she was barred from necessary, qualifying experience solely because of her race.

With the help of her friends and allies, along with her unstoppable winning streak, Althea Gibson earned a spot at the Eastern Lawn Tennis Association Grass Court Championships. From there, she could enter the US Nationals in Forest Hills, NY. This competition gave her massive media exposure, as people packed into the stadium to witness the first black woman stepping foot on that court, making history.

She won the Caribbean Championships at Montego Bay in 1951, her first international title, while studying at Florida Agriculture and Mechanical University. When she graduated in 1953, she became a physical education teacher at Lincoln University in Missouri, and even considered enlisting in the Women’s Army Corps. Instead, she was sent to Asia by the state Department to play exhibition matches in 1955.

These tours strengthened her confidence, on and off the court. She found inclusion and diversity outside America. She continued to win singles championships, and in the French Championships, she won doubles as well, with her partner Angela Buxton.

She advanced to the finals round of the US Nationals in 1956. The next year, she became the first black athlete to win a Ladies’ Singles championship at Wimbledon, and the first black champion in Wimbledon’s 80-year history. She also won Doubles at Wimbledon that year, and then won the US Nationals Women’s Singles championship.

There was a ticket tape parade down Broadway to celebrate her victory at Nationals. The New York Times wrote, “the girl who was playing paddle tennis on the streets of Harlem some fifteen years ago, found herself, at the age of 30, at the pinnacle of tennisdom.” It would be another 43 years before another black woman won the US Open (Serena Williams, 1999), and Althea Gibson was paving the way for generations of black athletes to come.

Gibson was the first black woman to appear on the cover of Times and Sports Illustrated magazines. She was named Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press in both 1957 and 1958, by which point Althea Gibson and won 58 titles. Everyone who knew anything about sports at the end of the 1950’s new Althea Gibson’s name.

And then she turned professional. Suddenly she was struggling to make money. There were no professional tours for women, and no direct endorsement deals allowed. There was also no prize money, even at major tournaments, so it was essentially impossible for her to be paid living wages through her sport. She’d made history and risen to great fame, but her bank account was empty.

From there, she stayed involved in issues of community and the social justice. She published her first memoir, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody, in 1960. While she worked on her art and social activism, white tennis players were getting deals and opportunities, advancing in their careers where she no longer could. Racial barriers were keeping her out of tennis for good.

Still a gifted and determined athlete, Althea began playing professional golf. She became the first black woman to join the LPGA tour in 1964. She was often barred from country clubs–and therefore competitions hosted there– because of her race. She’d have to change clothes in her car, because she was not permitted inside clubhouses.

Although Althea Gibson had proven herself unstoppable, she struggled all her life to make ends meet financially. After she retired, she unsuccessfully attempted a golf comeback. She pioneered Pepsi Cola’s national project to bring tennis equipment to underserved areas, and she championed multiple other tennis-based outreach programs throughout the next 30 years. She coached young women in tennis and in 1975, she was appointed New Jersey’s Commissioner of Athletics. In 1980, she was one of the first of 6 women to be inducted into the International women’s Sports Hall of Fame. In 1991, she received the Theodore Roosevelt Award for outstanding sportsmanship and competitive excellence.

She suffered multiple hemorrhages and a stroke, draining her financial resources in medical expenses. By the mid-90s, she could not afford her rent nor her medical care. She reached out to tennis organizations requesting help, but could not get a response. Angela Buxton, one of Gibson’s doubles partners, raised almost $1 million from around the world to support her.

Althea Gibson died in 2003. Her triumphant career opened doors for black athletes in America by proving to the public that race is irrelevant to sportsmanship. She was known to carry herself with dignity and grace, and as America sees percentages of racial minorities in amateur tennis, Gibson’s legacy lives on.

How do we measure an athlete’s legacy? What constitutes a successful career? Though buildings, trophies, tournaments, and scholarships live on in Althea Gibson’s name, we are reminded that she had very little money and access throughout her life. What systems are in place to support the trailblazers and champions of today? Does Althea Gibson’s life story represent the promises or the pitfalls of chasing a dream in America?