Tennis wasn’t originally made for black people.
Until it was dominated by black people.
In the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the Jim Crow South, one woman was making a name for herself on and off the court — Althea Gibson.
Gibson, a black woman, had a life full of firsts. She was the first African-American to compete in the U.S. National Championships for tennis. She was the first Black player to compete at Wimbledon. She was even the first African-American to compete in the women’s pro-golf tour.
But before all of her success, came her fight for equality in a sport that wouldn’t recognize her.
Gibson didn’t have an easy childhood. Her family, seeking a stronger financial future, moved from Silver, South Carolina to Harlem in 1930. While the move didn’t guarantee financial stability for her family, Gibson found sports in Harlem. She got her start in table tennis.
She won the New York City Women’s Paddle Championship at the young age of 12.
Eventually, her talent was recognized by musician Buddy Walker, who invited her to play tennis on the local courts. Shortly after, Gibson was introduced to the Harlem River Tennis Courts where she played in many local tournaments.
She later won a tennis tournament sponsored by the American Tennis Association — only a year after she started playing. The ATA was the only African-American tennis association in the country and worked to host tournaments and sponsor African-American tennis players.
Gibson continued to win ATA championships, and after her only loss in 1946, she won 10-straight titles from 1947 to 1956.
In 1950, during her ATA winning streak, Gibson became the first African American to play in the US National Championship. But before she could be entered into the competition, there were many discussions about her eligibility because of her race. It was only after four-time U.S. national singles titleist Alice Marble lobbied for Gibson in the American Lawn Tennis Magazine that Gibson was invited to play.
“If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentlepeople and less like sanctimonious hypocrites,” wrote Marble. “If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts.”
Marble’s fight for Gibson was the catalyst for breaking the color barrier in tennis. The following year, 1951, Gibson also became the first black player to compete at Wimbledon.
During all of this, she also attended Florida A&M University on a sports scholarship. While she graduated in 1953, there were many points where she considered dropping out. Most of her frustration stemmed from the constant opposition of her position in tennis because of her race.
Later in her career, she went on to win Wimbledon in 1957. At the final match between Gibson and Darlene Hard, the Queen of England was in attendance. Gibson joked with reporters that the hardest thing for her that day was to remember when to curtsey to the queen — not breaking an 80-year color barrier at Wimbledon, or competing in 100-degree weather against the best tennis players in the world.
Also in 1957, Gibson was voted the Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press. She was the first African American to ever be awarded the title.
In total, Gibson stacked up 56 doubles and singles championships, all in eight years. In 1959 she turned to professional tennis.
After her brief stint in pro-tennis, she decided to try golf. Making history again, she became the first Black woman to compete on the pro tour. She faced little success on the course, and returned to tennis.
After growing slower and older than her opponents, Gibson retired from tennis in 1971. In 2003, Gibson died of respiratory failure.
Though Gibson’s career can be quantified in championships and titles, her greater legacy is her fight for racial equality — in tennis, and in life.
She paved the way for Black women who have come to define tennis— like Serena and Venus Williams — to compete in a sport that historically excluded them.
Gibson’s career started in the height of the Civil Rights Movement. She would compete for a championship on a world stage, and then have to sleep in a different hotel than her white counterparts just because she was Black.
“Shaking hands with the Queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus going into downtown Wilmington, North Carolina,” she said.
But Gibson never considered herself a pioneer for African-Americans. She tended to balk at the idea she was a role model for black people.
“I tried to feel responsibilities to Negroes, but that was a burden on my shoulders,” she said in 1957. “Now I’m playing tennis to please me, not them.”
Whether she actively tried to be a pioneer or not, she was one. Gibson’s undeniable talent broke more barriers than believed possible. She dared to say, “I belong” in a place where she originally didn’t.
In the second match of her 1950 Wimbledon debut, a violent thunderstorm caused a delay. During the storm, a violent lightning strike knocked down a stone eagle from atop the stadium, where it crashed to the ground.
“It may have been an omen that times were changing,” she said afterward.
Gibson was arguably the biggest part of that change.
Her autobiography, published in 1958, is titled I Always Wanted to Be Somebody.
And somebody she was.
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