Althea Gibson, who dropped out of school at 13 and had a fondness for street fighting, was an unlikely pioneer in a sport as refined as tennis. Yet Gibson would break the color barrier in 1950, earn a college degree, and become a role model to many, including a young Billie Jean King, who cherished her copy of Gibson’s autobiography, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody.
King, an advocate for gender and racial equality, credits Gibson with transforming tennis. "What people have to understand is how she persevered and what she means to our sport," King says. "If people really learn her story, believe me, it will inspire them to do great things with their lives."
Serena Williams told wtatennis.com: "For me, she was the most important pioneer for tennis. She was Black, she looked like me and she opened up so many doors."
It’s been 70 years since Gibson became the first Black player to compete in what’s now the US Open. Today, the Black Lives Matter movement is helping to unite people in the quest for equality. For trailblazers such as Gibson, the path to equal rights was more isolated.
At that time in the US, schools and other places, including restaurants, were segregated, especially in the South under Jim Crow laws. Tennis also was divided, with white players and Black players competing on separate tours. It was an elite sport with no prize money, generally played by the upper class, reserved for the white and wealthy.
Filmmaker Rex Miller explains that Gibson faced many challenges with limited resources. “Besides being of color, she was a female, she was single, she had no money, and she had no professional organizations standing with her,” says Miller, who directed and produced the documentary Althea, released in 2015. “She had so many obstacles, and she overcame all those obstacles.”
Gibson was born to sharecroppers Daniel and Annie Gibson in Silver, South Carolina, a small town surrounded by cotton fields, on August 25, 1927. Her family moved to Harlem in New York City when she was three, setting in motion a series of events that would one day change history.
The street in front of Gibson’s apartment was a designated play area, so games and sports were easy to come by, and Gibson excelled at all of them. Her favorite was paddle tennis, in which she won a citywide championship at age 12. She was tall, athletic and extremely competitive. She skipped school to play sports and eventually dropped out.
Her athleticism caught the eye of jazz musician Buddy Walker, who introduced Gibson to tennis. She began lessons with Fred Johnson, a one-armed coach at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, which drew a wealthy Black clientele. The genteel atmosphere of the Cosmopolitan was worlds away from the rough-and-tumble environment Gibson was used to. She dealt with violence not only in the streets but also at home, where her father would unleash frequent beatings, ultimately leading her to seek refuge at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
Gibson quickly ascended in the American Tennis Association (ATA), the oldest Black sports organization in the US. Two young Black physicians, Drs. Robert Johnson and Hubert Eaton, recognized Gibson’s talent but also felt she needed a formal education. Gibson was 18 years old when the doctors came up with a plan that would shape her into a champion. In the summer, she stayed with Dr. Johnson in Lynchburg, Virginia, training as part of a junior tennis development program and playing in Black tournaments around the country. She spent the winter and spring in Wilmington, North Carolina, with Dr. Eaton, playing tennis on his backyard court and focusing on her high school education. From Dr. Eaton’s wife, Celeste, she learned social graces but her heart and burning tenacity remained, says former neighbor Lenny Simpson.
Simpson, who aged 15 would become the youngest male player to compete in the US Nationals, grew up next door to the Eatons. He remembers hiding under the shrubs to watch Gibson and others play tennis in Dr. Eaton’s backyard.
“It was the most magical thing that I had ever seen,” Simpson says.
He says Gibson noticed him but never said a word. One day, another neighbor, Nathaniel Jackson, who would later beat eight-time Grand Slam champion Fred Perry on that same North Carolina court, took five-year-old Simpson to the Eatons and introduced him to Gibson. “She looked at me and said, ‘Lendward, what took you so long, Champ?’ I hadn’t even hit a ball over the net yet, and she called me ‘Champ.’” With that question, Gibson changed Simpson’s life forever.
Gibson was not only an influence on Simpson, but she also was making an impact on the ATA circuit. At the National Indoor Championships in 1949, Gibson became the first Black woman to compete in a USLTA-sanctioned event - but she was not allowed to play in the US National Championships, now known as the US Open.
It took a written rebuke by American Alice Marble, a four-time US Nationals champion, to spark change. Marble wrote an editorial in a 1950 issue of American Lawn Tennis magazine supporting Gibson’s right to play and challenging the USLTA’s whites-only culture. As a result, Gibson was invited to compete in the tournament, breaking the color barrier.
In her second-round match on the grass courts at Forest Hills in New York, the 5-foot-11 Gibson faced three-time defending Wimbledon champion Louise Brough. Gibson was quick and graceful. Her game was powerful and aggressive. Even as fans shouted racial insults, Gibson didn’t waver. She led Brough 7-6 in the third set, one game from victory, when a thunderstorm halted play. The next day, Gibson was defeated in 11 minutes. Although she lost the match, it was viewed as a victory in the fight for equality.
Gibson’s next achievement was to earn her college degree. She attended Florida A&M University in Tallahassee on an athletic scholarship, playing tennis, basketball and golf. She also played tenor saxophone in the school’s band.
After college, Gibson worked with Sydney Llewellyn, a Caribbean-born tennis coach, who helped her with the mental aspect of her game. She continued to tour but because she was Black, she faced challenges that other players did not. At tournaments, she often was not allowed in the clubhouse or locker room. She sometimes was prohibited from using the restrooms and was turned away from restaurants. There were times she couldn’t stay at hotels and had to sleep in her car.
She eventually found a kindred spirit in her British doubles partner Angela Buxton, who, because she was Jewish, also faced discrimination. The two formed a friendship and successful partnership, winning doubles titles at the French Championships and Wimbledon. Buxton died earlier this month, aged 85.
Read more: In Memoriam: Angela Buxton
In 1956, in addition to winning doubles at the French Championships, Gibson also won singles there, becoming the first Black player to win a Grand Slam singles title. The next year, she continued to make history by winning Wimbledon, where Queen Elizabeth II presented her with the winner’s trophy, the Venus Rosewater Dish. Gibson returned home to a ticker-tape parade in New York City, where more than 100,000 fans lined the streets to cheer her on.
Fresh off her Wimbledon victory, Gibson won the US Nationals. The next day, on September 9, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the 1957 Civil Rights Act into law.
Gibson was often referred to as the Jackie Robinson of tennis. Robinson had broken the color barrier in baseball as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers three years before Gibson did the same in tennis. Unlike Robinson, Gibson rarely used her celebrity platform to talk about civil rights issues, which drew criticism from some. Gibson preferred to let her racquet do the talking. In 1958, she won Wimbledon and the US Nationals for the second year in a row.
She was named Associated Press Female Player of the Year for two consecutive years and featured on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time magazines.
Through all of this, she struggled to pay her bills. In those days, tennis players were amateur athletes who didn’t receive prize money. At the top of her game, Gibson was forced to turn professional to earn a living, but that meant she could no longer compete on the tour. The No.1 player in the world had no choice but to walk away.
“There were no opportunities available to her,” Miller says. “She didn’t fit the mold. She was a tall, overpowering Black woman who could serve and volley everybody off the court. She was dominant, and she wasn’t able to keep playing tennis because she didn’t have the financial opportunities to flourish as a person.”
Gibson tried her hand at various jobs in entertainment. She toured with the Harlem Globetrotters, where she played exhibition tennis matches. A gifted singer, Gibson performed on The Ed Sullivan Show. She released a jazz album, which showcased her rich voice but had disappointing sales. She even co-starred with John Wayne in The Horse Soldiers, a Civil War-era Western directed by John Ford, but no other films followed.
In an effort to earn money, Gibson turned to golf, a sport she played in college. In 1964, she became the first Black member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association — another first in another sport. Even as a professional golfer, the prize money was modest, and her finances remained meager.
In the 1970s, Gibson coached at tennis clinics around the country, helping young players develop their games. These athletes included future professional tennis players Leslie Allen and Zina Garrison. In 1990, Garrison reached the final at Wimbledon, becoming the first Black woman since Gibson to play in a Grand Slam final.
Katrina Adams, who was the USTA’s first Black president, says she remembers at age 11 meeting Gibson at a tennis clinic in Chicago. Adams says at the time she didn’t understand Gibson’s impact on the sport.
“When I started playing on tour, I think then I truly understood the magnitude of what her sacrifices were and how difficult it was for her to be in our sport and to conquer it,” Adams says.
Gibson watched Black players who came later, including Arthur Ashe and Venus and Serena Williams, gain accolades and financial success.
Ashe won his first Grand Slam title in 1968, a decade after Gibson retired, yet Ashe is commonly credited with breaking the color barrier in tennis. In Miller’s documentary, Ashe’s wife, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, says she corrects people who believe her husband was the first Black player to win a Grand Slam, explaining that he was the first Black man to do it.
“People forget that Althea came first,” Moutoussamy-Ashe says.
In the late 1990s, the Williams sisters made their tennis breakthrough. In 1999, Serena Williams won the US Open, the first Black woman to win a Grand Slam since Gibson, 41 years earlier. In 2000, Venus Williams became the first Black woman since Gibson to win Wimbledon. The sisters went on to become two of the greatest players in tennis history and two of the highest paid female athletes in the world.
In contrast, for Gibson, the woman who opened the door for so many, the years after tennis were marked by sadness. Fame proved fleeting, and the tennis star later felt somewhat abandoned and forgotten.
“I think one thing that was depressing for her is that she was not recognized,” Garrison says. “We should have recognized her back then. She didn’t get her due. How could such a great champion end up basically living at home and not even being recognized? It kind of blows my mind.”
Gibson, who’d had to fight since she was a girl in Harlem, had grown weary of life’s punches. In 1996, toward the end of her life, Gibson fell on hard times and contacted her old friend and doubles partner Buxton. She immediately sent Gibson money for rent and medicine until coming up with another plan. Buxton called a friend who published a letter in a 1996 issue of Tennis Week magazine. The letter informed the tennis community of Gibson’s plight. It asked readers to help Gibson, who had “always represented her country, her race and her sport with great dignity and pride”. In response to the letter, Gibson received more than $1 million in donations from fans around the world, helping to ease her struggle in the last years of her life.
Gibson died in 2003 at age 76. She was married twice. Her ashes are interred at a New Jersey cemetery in a grave she shares with her former husband, William Darben, whom she called the love of her life.
After Gibson died, Garrison realized the meaning behind five words Gibson would say to her at the end of conversations.
“After Venus and Serena started playing, she would ask about them and other black players who were coming up, and then she would say, ‘Keep working on your serve,’ ” Garrison says. “The day before her funeral, I finally got it. She wasn’t really telling me to work on my serve, she was talking about serving others and helping others who were coming up.”
Players, including the Williams sisters, have paid homage to Gibson. In 2016, Serena Williams posted a photo on social media of Gibson holding up the Venus Rosewater Dish after her Wimbledon win. The post said, “Althea Gibson paved the way for all women of color in sport. She won Wimbledon in 1958. I have held that same plate. Thank you, Althea.”
In recent years, Gibson has begun to get the recognition from the tennis world that was so elusive to her while she was alive. In honor of Gibson’s legacy, Simpson has restored the tennis court at Dr. Eaton’s North Carolina home. He is coaching a new generation of players on the same court where Gibson honed her skills in the 1940s and ’50s. Some of the young female players—part of Simpson’s One Love Tennis program for at-risk youth—wrote letters to Adams, then the USTA president, asking for Gibson to be honored for her achievements. Simpson says the girls saw an injustice that made them angry, and they stood up against it just like Gibson would have wanted.
“She would have been so proud of those young ladies that they would have thought enough of her to go to bat for her,” Simpson says.
In 2019, after years of campaigning by Adams, King and others, a bronze statue of Gibson was erected next to Arthur Ashe Stadium on the site of the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows. After researching Gibson, artist Eric Goulder designed the sculpture.
“She didn’t just break the color barrier, she became the best in the world,” Goulder said at the statue’s unveiling. He added that she “disrupted” the world order. “It’s never been the same, and it never will be,” he said.
As Miller explains, while Gibson had people who helped her and gave her opportunities along the way, she withstood the pressure, and she won the championships on her own.
“She was born to sharecroppers in the cotton fields of South Carolina in 1927, and 30 years later she was handed the Wimbledon championship trophy by the Queen of England,” Miller says. “She’s an amazing role model for young people, particularly young ladies and people of color, but really for everybody. There were barriers, but Althea didn’t let those barriers hold her back. She found ways to overcome them.”