The life of legendary tennis player Althea Gibson explored


Even if you’re not a fan of tennis, you’ve probably of heard Venus and Serena Williams, Arthur Ashe, and current U.S. Open women’s champion Coco Gauff.

South Carolina native and tennis legend Althea Gibson paved the way for these African American tennis greats. In 1956, Gibson was the first Black tennis player to win a Grand Slam. She won 11 grand slams in singles and doubles, and earned a No. 1 world ranking, despite incessant racism throughout her career. That legacy is the subject of a new book, “The Life of Tennis Champion Althea Gibson.”

Gibson had a powerful serve that helped her dominate tennis in the 1950s. She was the first Black woman to win the French Open in 1956 and in 1957, she became the first African American to win the US Open.

“My style of play I believe was aggressive, dynamic and mean,” Althea said in an interview.

Later that year, Gibson became the first African American to win the ladies singles at Wimbledon, which landed her on the popular “Ed Sullivan Show.”

“It all started back in the play streets, Ed, where the kids coming up trying to make something of themselves and keep out of trouble,” Gibson told Sullivan. “I felt that I have accomplished a great deal in that respect and I have so many people to be thankful to be in this position I am now … being the Wimbledon champion.

“It wasn’t all my doing, Ed. It was a lot of people’s encouragement, good wishes who accompanied me over there to help me win this title and with God’s help also.”

Gibson repeated the singles win at Wimbledon in 1958 and at the U.S. Open that year as well. Yet, despite Gibson’s accomplishments, Sally Jacobs had not heard of her when it was suggested Gibson become her next subject for a book.

I had done a biography of Barack Obama’s father some years before and was looking around for another topic and my boyfriend said how about Althea Gibson and I said who the hell is that,” Jacobs said. “So for me, it was really a long journey and a fascinating one learning about who she was and what she did.”

Gibson was born in Silver, South Carolina — about an hour southeast of Columbia. Jacobs went there several times to interview relatives and friends of Gibson’s family. She also visited the field behind Silver’s only store, where Gibson was born.

Gibson left South Carolina when she was very young for New York City, where her family struggled to make a living. Her father was a mechanic and tried to turn Gibson into a boxer. He also beat her often, leading Gibson to ride the subway all night to avoid going home.

She eventually dropped out of school. Because of her superior athletic abilities in many sports, she caught the eye of two Black doctors, Robert Johnson in Lynchburg, Virginia and Hubert Eaton in Wilmington, North Carolina. They both had tennis courts in their backyards and in addition to training Gibson, and having her live with them half of the year each as family, they pushed her to complete her education. She went on to receive a degree from Florida A & M while playing, initially only with the Black American Tennis Association before breaking the color barrier in 1950 and being allowed to play in the United States Lawn Tennis Association matches.

Gibson was subjected to racism in terms of travel accommodations, hecklers at matches and being turned away from tennis social events.

Despite the racial snubs and denigrating newspaper articles written about her, Gibson did not feel obliged to speak out about the blatant racism she experienced.

“I’m sure that there was prejudice but I suppose I ignored it because I was so intense in my tennis that I didn’t even think about it and in those years, I was antisocial and I didn’t give a hoot about going to cocktail parties … it didn’t bother me,” Gibson said.

That attitude caused her to have a love/hate relationship with the Black press that praised her powerful play but criticized her for not speaking out against racism. Gibson said she did not want to take on that responsibility, although in later years she did speak about the discrimination she endured.

Tennis great Althea Gibson's album and her tennis career are the focus of a section in the new International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina.

Tennis great Althea Gibson’s album and her tennis career are the focus of a section in the new International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina.

Gibson retired from tennis in 1958 because there wasn’t much money in it — the Grand Slams, while prestigious, didn’t pay during those years. But her athletic career didn’t end.

She was the first Black woman to be admitted to the LGPA, and played professional golf for a number of years, making little money.

She also tried her hand at acting, having a small role in a John Wayne film, “The Horse Soldiers” in 1959. She recorded an album, “Althea Gibson Sings” in 1958 and later on became New Jersey’s first female commissioner of athletics, lost a bid for state senate and tried her hand at various business ventures, with little success.

A story in Tennis Week in 1996 detailed Gibson’s financial and health struggles. Her fans responded, sending about $1 million to Gibson, according to Jacobs.

Gibson’s legend faded over the years and it wasn’t until 2019 that a statue of her was erected on U.S. Open grounds — 16 years after her death. But, as Jacobs notes, it’s in the shadows of two facilities named for people who came after her — Billy Jean King and Arthur Ashe.

Ideally more people who will come to recognize her … but time will tell,” Jacobs said.

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