Althea Gibson (August 25, 1927 – September 28, 2003) was an American tennis player, and the first African-American athlete of either gender to cross the color line of national and international tennis. In 1956 she became the first person of color to win a Grand Slam title (the French Open). The following year she won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals, then won both again in 1958, and was voted Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press in both years. In all she won 11 Grand Slam tournaments, including six doubles titles, and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame. In the early 1960s she also became the first black player to compete on the women's golf tour.
At a time when racism and prejudice were widespread in sports and in society, Gibson was often compared to Jackie Robinson. "Her road to success was a challenging one," said Billie Jean King, "but I never saw her back down." "I am honored to have followed in such great footsteps," wrote Venus Williams. "Her accomplishments set the stage for my success, and through players like myself and Serena and many others to come, her legacy will live on."
Gibson was born on August 25, 1927, in the town of Silver in Clarendon County, South Carolina to Daniel and Annie Bell Gibson. Her two siblings were Daniel Jr. (known as "Bubba"), and Mildred. Her athletic talent became apparent in school, initially in basketball. In the early 1940s she drew the attention of Walter Johnson, a Lynchburg, Virginia physician who was active in the African American tennis community. Under Johnson's patronage — he would later mentor Arthur Ashe as well — Gibson gained access to better instruction and competitions, and later, to the United States Tennis Association (USTA). In 1946 she moved to Wilmington, North Carolina under the sponsorship of Hubert A. Eaton and enrolled at Williston High School. She graduated from Florida A&M University in 1953.
Gibson's statue in Newark, NJ, near courts (in background) on which she ran clinics for young players in her later years
In 1956 Gibson became the first African-American athlete to win a major tournament when she became the French Open singles champion. (She won the 1956 French doubles title as well, partnered with Australian Angela Buxton.) She then captured the singles crowns at both Wimbledon and the United States National Championships (now the U.S. Open) twice, in 1957 and 1958. She also won three straight Wimbledon doubles titles — with three different partners — in 1956 through 1958. Gibson was ranked in the world top ten in 1956, and number one in 1957 and 1958. In the United States she was included in the top ten rankings of the USTA in 1952 and 1953 and from 1955 through 1958, and was the top-ranked U.S. player in 1957 and 1958. She was named Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press in both 1957 and 1958 as well. In 1957 alone, Gibson reached the finals of eight Grand Slam events, winning the U.S. and British singles titles, the British and Australian doubles championships, and the U.S. mixed doubles crown, and finishing second in Australian singles, U.S. doubles, and Wimbledon mixed doubles. In all she won 56 amateur singles and doubles titles, including 11 Grand Slam championships.
In 1958 Gibson retired from amateur tennis. Prior to the open era there was no prize money at major tournaments, other than an expense allowance, and no endorsement deals. To earn prize money tennis players had to give up their amateur status, which in turn disqualified them from competing in Grand Slam events. As there was no professional tour for women, Gibson was limited to playing in exhibition tours, including a series of matches before Harlem Globetrotter basketball games. She did enter a few tournaments after 1968, when the open era began; but by then she was in her forties and could not effectively compete against younger players. During this period Gibson wrote her autobiography, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody. In 1959 she recorded an album, Althea Gibson Sings, appeared as the celebrity guest on the TV panel show What's My Line?, and was cast as a slave woman in the motion picture The Horse Soldiers .
In 1964, at age 37, Gibson became the first African-American woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour. Her best tournament finish was a tie for second after a three-way playoff at the 1970 Len Immke Buick Open. She retired from professional golf at the end of the 1978 season.
In 1971 Gibson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, and in 1975, she was appointed the New Jersey state commissioner of athletics. In 1977, she challenged incumbent Essex County State Senator Frank J. Dodd in the Democratic primary for his seat. She came in second behind Dodd, but ahead of Assemblyman Eldridge Hawkins. After 10 years as commissioner, she went on to work in other public service positions, including serving on the governor's council on physical fitness. Gibson was married twice: to William Darben from 1965 to 1976, and to Sydney Llewellyn from 1983 to 1988. Both marriages ended in divorce; she had no children.
In later years Gibson suffered two ruptured cerebral aneurysms, and in 1992, a stroke. A few years later she told her former doubles partner Angela Buxton that she was considering suicide, as she was living on welfare, and was unable to pay for rent or medication. (She had written to various tennis bodies for help; none replied.) Buxton arranged for a letter to appear in a tennis magazine, resulting in donations totaling nearly $1 million from around the world.
On September 28, 2003 Gibson died at the age of 76 in East Orange, New Jersey and was interred there in the Rosedale Cemetery.
On the opening night of the 2007 U.S. Open, the 50th anniversary of Gibson's victory at the U.S. Championships (precursor to the US Open) in 1957, Gibson was inducted into US Open Court of Champions. She was a 1994 inductee of the Sports Hall of Fame of New Jersey and 2009 inductee of the New Jersey Hall of Fame. In September 2009, Wilmington, North Carolina, named its new community tennis complex the Althea Gibson Tennis Center. In 2012, a statue of Gibson was dedicated to her memory in Branch Brook Park in Newark, New Jersey. "I hope that I have accomplished just one thing," she once wrote, "that I have been a credit to tennis and to my country." "By all measures," reads the inscription on her Newark statue, "Althea Gibson certainly attained that goal."
Grand Slam finals
Singles: 7 (5–2)
Althea Gibson's 1956 Wimbledon Ladies Double trophy, the first for an African American
Doubles: 7 (5–2)
Mixed doubles: 4 (1–3)
Grand Slam singles tournament timeline
|Australia||A||A||A||A||A||A||A||F||A||0 / 1|
|France||A||A||A||A||A||A||W||A||A||1 / 1|
|Wimbledon||A||3R||A||A||A||A||QF||W||W||2 / 4|
|United States||2R||3R||3R||QF||1R||3R||F||W||W||2 / 9|
|SR||0 / 1||0 / 2||0 / 1||0 / 1||0 / 1||0 / 1||1 / 3||2 / 3||2 / 2||5 / 15|
A = did not participate in the tournament
SR = the ratio of the number of Grand Slam singles tournaments won to the number of those tournaments played
- ^ Thomas, Robert McG, Jr. (September 29, 2003). An Unlikely Champion. New York Times archive. Retrieved February 7, 2013
- ^ Lewis, Jone Johnson. Women's History. About.com archive. Retrieved February 19, 2013
- ^ Biography of Althea Gibson. altheagibson.com. Retrieved March 18, 2013
- ^ Hubert A. Eaton. nhcs.net archive. Retrieved March 18, 2013
- ^ Collins, Bud (2008). The Bud Collins History of Tennis: An Authoritative Encyclopedia and Record Book. New York: New Chapter Press. pp. 695, 703. ISBN 0-942257-41-3.
- ^ United States Tennis Association (1988). 1988 Official USTA Tennis Yearbook. Lynn, Massachusetts: H.O. Zimman, Inc. p. 261.
- ^ Associated Press Athlete of the Year (female). NNDB database. Retrieved March 26, 2013
- ^ Biography of Althea Gibson. altheagibson.com. Retrieved March 18, 2013
- ^ Honoring Pioneers – Althea Gibson
- ^ 1970 Len Immke Buick Open results
- ^ Althea Gibson career record – at golfobserver.com
- ^ Edge, Wally (2008-01-07). "The one that starts in the 1960s and ends with Codey". PolitickerNJ. Retrieved 2009-03-09.
- ^ Schoenfeld, Bruce. The Match: Althea Gibson & Angela Buxton : How Two Outsiders--One Black, the Other Jewish--Forged a Friendship and Made Sports History. New York, NY. May, 2005. Harper Paperbacks, pp. 220-224. ISBN-10: 006052653X
- ^ 
- ^ "USTA To Honor Althea Gibson on Opening Night". usopen.org. 2007-08-15. Retrieved 2007-08-28.
- ^ Dillman, Lisa (2007-08-27). "Williams sisters part of Gibson tribute". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 2007-10-04. Retrieved 2007-08-28.
- ^ http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2012/03/statue_of_first_black_woman_to.html