Before Venus, and before Serena, there was Althea.
Tennis pioneer Althea Gibson racked up an impressive list of firsts. She became the first Black woman on the world tennis tour (1950). The first Black Wimbledon tennis champion (doubles in 1956, singles in 1957) and first Black woman to win a Grand Slam event when she took the French Open in 1956.
And just in case that wasn’t enough, she also crossed over to golf and became the first Black woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) in 1964.
That list would be impressive under any circumstances, but even more so when you consider that Gibson grew up in a rough and tumble Harlem neighborhood in the Civil Rights era with no privilege or position to ease her way. That takes moxie, and Gibson had it.
Moxie needs allies to open the door.
Gibson’s athleticism flourished in the streets of Harlem. She grew up playing — and excelling — at every sport she tried playing among the neighborhood kids. She won the citywide paddle tennis championship at the age of twelve, catching the eye of jazz musician Buddy Walker, who guided her to Harlem’s Cosmopolitan Tennis Center and the tutelage of Fred Johnson. From there it was a short climb to the American Tennis Association, a Black sports organization.
Two of the organization’s strongest leaders recognized Gibson’s giftedness. Dr. Robert Johnson and Dr. Hubert Eaton teamed up to foster her as an athlete, and as an adolescent. Gibson had dropped out of school at 13 and sought refuge from her abusive father through Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The good doctors and their families took Gibson into their homes and offered her educational and coaching opportunities.
Gibson soon emerged as a force on the court. But despite her success, she was unable to garner an invitation to the U.S. Open because she was shut out of competition at all-white clubs, where she needed to amass the wins that would make her eligible for the Open.
That’s when an ally named Alice Marble stepped up. Marble was a retired four-time US Open (then known as the US Nationals) champ. She raised her voice on Gibson’s behalf in a powerful editorial published in American Lawn Tennis in 1950. “If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of players, then it’s only fair that they meet this challenge on the courts,” Marble wrote.
Gibson found another ally in player Sarah Palfrey, who helped Gibson prepare for Eastern Lawn Tennis Association Grass Court Championships played in Orange, New Jersey. Gibson had a strong showing and earned her invitation to the Open.
Gibson expressed gratitude to all those who invested in her as a player and as a person.
“I always wanted to be somebody. If I made it, it’s half because I was game enough to take a lot of punishment along the way and a half because there were a lot of people who cared enough to help me,” she said.
Moxie has a perfect serve.
Gibson also paid it forward and reminded others to do the same. Financial challenges forced her off the tour when she was at her peak. She tried her hand at a number of other ventures to make ends meet, including touring with the Harlem Globetrotters, acting, and even professional golf. She also began mentoring and coaching in tennis clubs across the country. As a mentor and coach, she influenced another generation of Black athletes and leaders, including Katrina Adams, who was the USTA’s first Black president, and players Leslie Allen and Zina Garrison.
“After Venus and Serena [Williams] 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 recalled in a post on wtatennis.com. “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.”
Moxie is remembered.
In her later years, Gibson struggled to make ends meet and was forced to reach to friends for help. It’s hard to imagine, but the woman who broke the color barrier in tennis and went on to win an astounding 11 major titles was rarely recognized and later overlooked. Many mistakenly credit Arthur Ashe with breaking the color barrier in tennis, but it was Gibson who paved the way for him.
She was even posthumously bestowed with a 2013 Black Heritage Month U.S. Postage Stamp
Though Gibson faded into relative obscurity later in her life, players like the Williams sisters are quick to call out her achievements and influence. In 2016, Serena posted a photo of Gibson holding the Venus Rosewater Dish with this caption: “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 2019, a bronze statue honoring Gibson was erected outside Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows, NY.
ALTHEA GIBSON’S WIKIPEDIA PAGE: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Althea_Gibson
WIMBLEDON’S WIKIPEDIA PAGE: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Championships,_Wimbledon
FRENCH OPEN’S WIKIPEDIA PAGE;https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Championships,_Wimbledon
U.S. OPEN’S WIKIPEDIA PAGE: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/US_Open_(tennis