Althea Gibson court on evening

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Althea Gibson


Trailblazing athlete Althea Gibson became the first great African-American player in women’s tennis. Raised primarily in Harlem section of New York City, she won a string of American Tennis Association titles on the African-American circuit. After being allowed entry to the major tournaments, she became the first black player to win Wimbledon and the French and U.S. Open titles. Gibson turned professional in 1959, and made more history by becoming the first African-American competitor on the women’s pro golf tour in the 1960s. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971, and later served as Commissioner of Athletics for the state of New Jersey.

Early Life

Althea Gibson blazed a new trail in the sport of tennis, winning some of the sport’s biggest titles in the 1950s and becoming the game’s first black champion.Raised primarily in the Harlem borough of New York City, where Gibson and her family moved when she was young, her life had its hardships. Her family lived on public assistance for a time. Gibson struggled in the classroom as well, and often skipped school all together, but loved to play sports – especially ping-pong. After winning several tournaments hosted by the local recreation department, Gibson was introduced to the Harlem River Tennis Courts in 1941. Incredibly, just a year after picking up a racket for the first time, Gibson won a local tournament sponsored by the American Tennis Association, an African-American organization established to promote and sponsor tournaments for black players. For Gibson, two more ATA titles followed in 1944 and 1945. After losing one title in 1946, Gibson won 10 straight championships from 1947-1956.

Making History

Gibson’s success at those ATA tournaments paved the way for her to attend college on a sports scholarship. She graduated from the school in 1953, but it was a struggle for her to get by. At one point, she even thought of leaving sports all together to join the U.S. Army. A good deal of her frustration had to do with thefact that so much of the tennis world was closed off to her. The white-dominated, white-managed sport was segregated in the U.S. in much the same way that the world around it was. The breaking point came in 1950 when Alice Mable, a former tennis No. 1 herself, wrote a piece in American Lawn Tennis magazine lambasting her sport for denying a playerof Gibson’s caliber to compete in the world’s best tournaments. Mable’s article caught notice and in 1951, and Gibson made history when she became the first African-American ever invited to play at Wimbledon. A year later, she was a Top 10 player in the U.S. She then climbed even higher, to No. 7 in 1953.

In 1955, Gibson and her game were sponsored by the United States Lawn Tennis Association, which sent her around the world on a State Department tour that saw her compete in places like India, Pakistan and Burma. Measuring 5-feet 11-inches, and possessing superb power andathletic skill, Gibson seemed destined for bigger victories. In 1956,it all came together when she won the French Open. Wimbledon and U.S.Open titles followed in 1957 and 1958. In all, Gibson powered her wayto 56 singles and doubles championships before turning pro in 1959.

For her part, however, Gibson downplayed her pioneering role. “I have never regarded myself as a crusader,” she said in her 1958autobiography, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody. “I don’t consciouslybeat the drums for any cause, not even the negro in the United States.”

Commercial Success

As a professional, Gibson continued to win – she landed the singles titlein 1960 – but just as importantly, she started to make money. She was reportedly paid $100,000 for a playing a series of matches before Harlem Globetrotter games. For a short time, too, the athletically gifted Gibson played on the professional golf tour. But failing to win on the course as she had on the courts, she eventually returned to tennis. In 1968,with the advent of tennis’ Open era, Gibson tried to repeat her past success. She was too old and too slow-footed, however, to keep up with her younger counterparts.

Following her retirement, Althea Gibson, was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971. She stayed connected to sports, however, through a number of service positions. Beginning in 1975, she served 10 years as Commissioner of Athletics for the state of New Jersey. She was also a member of the governor’s council on physical fitness.

Later Struggles

But just as her early childhood had been, Gibson’s last few years were dominated by hardship. She nearly went bankrupt before former tennis great Billy Jean King and others stepped in to help her out. Her health, too, went into decline. She suffered a stroke and developed serious heart problems. On September 28, 2003, Gibson died of respiratory failure in East Orange, New Jersey.

Althea Gibson

The life of Althea Gibson, a dominant tennis player in the 50s, was filled with successes that influenced the participation of African Americans in tennis, as well as leading the way for female tennis players by being the first black, male or female, to win a Grand Slam title. Althea was born on August 25, 1927 in Silver, South Carolina, but was raised in Harlem where she had a less than opulent life. For recreation, Althea began playing table tennis at a young age.

Buddy Walker, a musician, noticed Althea’s interest in the game and introduced her to tennis at the Harlem River Tennis Courts. An active member in the tennis community named Dr. Walter Johnson also noticed Althea and invested his time and money into helping with her training. Dr. Johnson put Althea into better competitions, as well as setting up contacts with the USTA to introduce her to the recognized tennis scene. In 1942, Althea entered and won her first tournament that was sponsored by the all-black African Tennis Association.

Four years later she moved to North Carolina to receive tennis training, and in 1947 she won the first of ten consecutive ATA women’s singles championships. Until 1950, Althea and other African American tennis players were only allowed to play in the ATA and could not compete against any white players. However, Althea was finally given the opportunity in 1950 to play in the Forest Hills National Grass Court Championship in New York, the first African American player of either sex to be allowed to enter.

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The Essay on Althea Gibson African American

. Althea was emerging as a recognized tennis player, African Americans opportunities were somewhat limited. One organization called the American Tennis Association provided tounament opportunities for African American tennis players. In 1942, Althea .

One year later she became the first African American to be invited to Wimbledon, the All-England Championships. These two tournaments would be the foundation for Althea’s continuous growth in the sport of tennis. She played in many more large tournaments and in 1956 she struck big at the French Open by taking home the gold. It only got better for Althea because in 1957 she won both singles and doubles at Wimbledon, as well as the US National Tennis Championships at Forest Hill.

In 1958 she did it all over again by taking home the title for the second time in both Wimbledon and Forest Hill. These titles were among the most admirable in Althea’s career. Her successes as an African American tennis player were especially exceptional because she was a woman. Woman had to face their own struggles to make their way into sports, however, Althea managed to push ahead of all men as well as whites in tennis.

I find it truly incredible that she overcame two types of segregation, especially uring a time where prejudice and racism were prevalent in society. Althea Gibson was one of the most significant African American athletes of her time because of her strength and composure through a time of racial prejudice. Althea helped pave the way for some of the greatest athletes in tennis such as Venus and Serena Williams and Arthur Ashe. She remains a hero to African Americans, woman, and to people in the tennis community.

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Former tennis pro Angela Buxton remembers Althea Gibson decades after they made history

New York — As the U.S. Open got underway in New York on Monday, a tennis pioneer received an honor that was long overdue, when a monument to Althea Gibson was unveiled. In the 1950’s, Gibson became the first black player to win a major championship.

Althea Gibson was talented on the court, but lonely off it. In 1955, she met her match in Angela Buxton, England’s top player.

«Nobody even spoke to her, let alone played with her in her own country,» Buxton said.

Buxton is Jewish, and back then wasn’t embraced either.

«Not once did the British girls invite me to join them for a meal. Not once,» she said.

American tennis player Althea Gibson in action against American Darlene Hard at Beckenham on June 15, 1957. Getty

The similar indignities created a bond. They became doubles partners and won the French Open and Wimbledon in 1956. One newspaper reported the historic feat with a two word headline: «Minorities win.»

Their decades-long friendship would be tested in 1995 when a 68-year-old Gibson called Buxton out of the blue.

«She said, ‘Well, I’ve run out of money, and I can’t stand it any longer. So I’ve decided to kill myself,'» Buxton said.

Gibson was sick and couldn’t afford medicine or rent. At the time, players weren’t allowed to make money from sponsors. So Buxton published a letter about Gibson’s plight and fans responded with almost $1 million in donations.

Gibson died in 2003. Today, 85-year-old Buxton was happy to travel across the pond to attend a ceremony honoring the memory of her friend.

«The hotels may say on the outside, ‘No blacks allowed,’ or, or Jews, for that matter. And all that nonsense she had to face. You know?» Buxton said. «She got the last laugh.»

Players and dignitaries at the unveiling ceremony of the Althea Gibson sculpture at the 2020 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on August 26, 2020. Getty

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