Serena Williams knows how much she owes Althea Gibson.
The superstar once said Gibson was “one of the most important, probably for me the most important, pioneers in tennis: “She was black, she looked like me and she opened so many doors for all the players who came after her.”
Over 40 years before Serena and Venus Williams reached the summit, over 60 years before US Open winner Coco Gauff, Althea Gibson was the first black winner of a Grand Slam tournament, Wimbledon champion and generally the first black female tennis player World class level.
The resistance that Gibson had to overcome on the way there was just as considerable as the racist discrimination that she was subjected to before and afterward.
The legend’s eventful life ended 20 years ago today – under depressing circumstances.
Althea Gibson grew up in poverty and discrimination
Althea Neale Gibson was born on August 25, 1927 in Clarendon County, South Carolina, during the time of racial segregation and the Great Depression, the severe economic crisis that preceded World War II.
Althea’s parents were “sharecroppers,” farmers on a cotton plantation, who fled the economic hardship to the big city of New York.
Althea grew up in the Harlem district, dropped out of school at 13 and temporarily lived in public housing out of fear of her father, who was prone to violent outbursts. In her autobiography, Gibson described herself as a “street fighter”; she learned tennis in the neighborhood, in the padel variant that is now a trend sport around the world.
Racism in tennis was omnipresent in Gibson’s time
Word got around about the talent of the 1.80 meter giant, who was powerful but also played with a high level of style; she was encouraged by the doctor Walter Johnson, who was active in the tennis community and who later also took Arthur Ashe under his wing. (Arthur Ashe: The Tragic End of a Wimbledon Sensation)
Gibson suffered even more than Ashe, who was born 17 years after her, from racist structures in her country and in tennis; she was excluded from many national and international tournaments.
In 1950, Gibson helped a top player from the generation before her make her debut at the US Nationals, today’s US Open: The four-time winner Alice Marble denounced the discrimination against black players in the “white sport” in an incendiary letter. She successfully put pressure on the “color line” to fall in tennis too – three years after the MLB debut of the first black major league star, Jackie Robinson.
After winning Wimbledon, a sports idol of the fifties
Gibson had a furious career, winning the French Open in 1956, followed by two triumphs at Wimbledon and the US Open in 1957 and 1958.
“It was a long way from the colored section on the bus to the handshake with the Queen,” Gibson noted with satisfaction after her first London victory. Gibson received the winner’s trophy from the young Queen Elizabeth, and on her return to the USA she was welcomed with a ticker-tape parade in New York – like Jesse Owens after his triumphs at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany.
Gibson was named US Athlete of the Year in her two big years, and she was also the first black woman to appear on the covers of Time Magazine and Sports Illustrated.
Althea Gibson received a triumphant welcome in New York in 1957
Early success was also a curse
As groundbreaking as Gibson’s triumphs were, their early timing was in some ways a curse: Gibson didn’t make much money under the amateur conditions before the start of the Open Era
In her second career as a paid professional, she was less in demand than other stars, and Gibson was frustrated that she recognized the discriminatory patterns that she had thought she had overcome with her success. She was also permanently tarnished by the fact that she was still denied official membership in the All-England Club of Wimbledon despite her victories.
In her late 30s, Gibson started a new career as a golfer (where she also still felt a lot of discrimination), while at the same time pursuing other passions, appearing in TV shows, films and on stage – Gibson was also a talented singer and saxophonist.
The sport forgot Althea Gibson
Over the years and decades, however, Gibson became increasingly forgotten as a public figure and became impoverished when, from the late 1980s, she had increasing health problems with two cerebral hemorrhages and a stroke and was overwhelmed by the costs of treatment.
Gibson’s former doubles partner Angela Buxton from England – who, as a Jew, had her own history of discrimination – organized a large relief effort, but also encountered frustrating hurdles: According to her own statements, she did not even receive a response from several tennis organizations.
In 2003, Gibson survived a heart attack and then died on September 28 as a result of complications from a respiratory and bladder infection.
Twice-divorced Gibson found her final resting place in her long-time adopted home of Orange, New Jersey. Since 2019, a statue on the grounds of the US Open in New York has commemorated the pioneer.
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