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Althea Gibson


Althea Gibson (August 25, 1927 – September 28, 2003) was an American sportswoman who became the first African-American woman to be a competitor on the world tennis tour and the first to win a Grand Slam title in 1956. She is sometimes referred to as “the Jackie Robinson of tennis” for breaking the “color barrier.” Gibson was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.

With the assistance of a sponsor, Gibson moved to Wilmington, North Carolina in 1946 for tennis training, and in 1947 at the age of 20, she won the first of 10 consecutive national championships run by the American Tennis Association, then-governing body for black tournaments. Forced to play in what was basically a segregated sport, at age 23 Gibson was finally given the opportunity to participate in the 1950 U.S. Championships after Alice Marble had written an editorial for the July 1, 1950, edition of American Lawn Tennis Magazine. Marble said, “Miss Gibson is over a very cunningly wrought barrel, and I can only hope to loosen a few of its staves with one lone opinion. If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentlepeople and less like sanctimonious hypocrites…. If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts.” Marble said that if Gibson were not given the opportunity to compete, “then there is an uneradicable mark against a game to which I have devoted most of my life, and I would be bitterly ashamed.”[1] Gibson continued to improve her tennis game while pursuing an education. In 1953, she graduated from Florida A&M University on a tennis and basketball scholarship and moved to Jefferson City, Missouri to work as an athletic instructor at Lincoln University.

Gibson was now able to compete against the best players from around the world because the color barrier had been broken. Gibson’s game improved to where she won the 1955 Italian Championships. The following year, she won her first Grand Slam titles, capturing the French Championships in singles and in doubles with her partner, Jewish Englishwoman Angela Buxton. Buxton had run into discrimination from other players and the tennis establishment along the same lines as those experienced by Gibson, so the two joined forces and achieved great success. Buxton was the first Jewish champion at Wimbledon, and Gibson was the first champion of African descent. An English newspaper reported their victory at Wimbledon under the headline “Minorities Win.”

She followed up by becoming the first black person to win a title at Wimbledon, again capturing the doubles title with Buxton. At the U.S. Championships that year, she reached the singles final where she lost to Shirley Fry Irvin.

In 1957, Gibson lost in the singles final of the Australian Championships, again to Irvin. The two women, however, teamed to capture the doubles title, as Buxton had retired prematurely at the age of 22 due to a serious hand injury.

At Wimbledon, Gibson won her first of two consecutive singles championships and, upon returning to the United States, was given a ticker-tape parade in New York City and an official welcome at New York City Hall. She responded by winning the U.S. Championships. For her accomplishments that year, Gibson earned the No. 1 ranking in the world and was named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year.

In 1958, after successfully defending her Wimbledon singles title and winning her third consecutive Wimbledon women’s doubles title, Gibson again won the singles title at the U.S. Championships. She was named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year for the second consecutive year. That year, Gibson retired from amateur tennis. Before the open era began, there was no prize money, other than an expense allowance, and no endorsement deals. To begin earning prize money, tennis players had to give up their amateur status. As there was no professional tour for women, Gibson was limited to playing in a series of exhibition tours.

According to Lance Tingay of The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, Gibson was ranked in the world top ten from 1956 through 1958, reaching a career high of World No. 1 in those rankings in 1957 and 1958.[2] Gibson was included in the year-end top ten rankings issued by the United States Tennis Association in 1952 and 1953 and from 1955 through 1958. She was the top ranked U.S. player in 1957 and 1958.[3] In 1958, she appeared as the celebrity challenger on the TV panel show “What’s My Line?”.

In retirement, Gibson wrote her autobiography and in 1959 recorded an album, Althea Gibson Sings, as well as appearing in the motion picture, The Horse Soldiers. In 1964, she became the first African-American woman to play in the Ladies Professional Golf Association. However, she was too old to be successful and only played for a few years.

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.

Official Althea Gibson Website



Born to Win: The Authorized Biography of Althea Gibson
by Frances Clayton Gray (Author), Yanick Rice Lamb (Author), Bill Cosby (Foreword), Venus Williams (Afterword)

Nothing but Trouble: The Story of Althea Gibson
by Sue Stauffacher (Author), Greg Couch (Illustrator)

Playing To Win: The Story Of Althea Gibson
by Karen Deans (Author), Elbrite Brown (Illustrator)

Althea Gibson: Young Tennis Player (Childhood of Famous Americans)
by Beatrice Gormley (Author), Meryl Henderson (Illustrator)


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