Little Known Black History Fact: Althea Gibson

Althea Gibson is best known as a pioneering tennis player who was the first Black player to win a Grand Slam title. Along with crossing the color lines in international tennis play, Gibson is also the first Black woman to join the LPGA golf tour.

Born on August 25, 1927 in South Carolina, Gibson and her family relocated to Harlem, New York when she was toddler. It was in that city where she developed a love of all sports but flocked to tennis.

Under the guidance of physician Walter Johnson, who was connected to the Black tennis elite, Gibson flourished and eventually became a notable champion of the Black-owned American Tennis Association. She would eventually become the first Black player to play in the U.S. National Championship and at Wimbledon in 1950 and 1951 respectively.

In 1956, Gibson won the first of her six Grand Slam singles titles at what is now known as the French Open. The following year on July 6, 1957, she became the first Black player to win the women’s singles title at the Wimbledon Open. That came after struggles Gibson faced in the predominately white sport while attending Florida A&M University. She even considered leaving the sport because of the racism and sexism she endured.

After tennis, the low-key and humble Gibson decided to try her hand at golf and landed a spot on the tour but failed to capture the magic she did on the courts. After retiring in the ’70’s, she became an ambassador for the sport and served as the New Jersey State commissioner of athletics.

In her later years, Gibson fell on hard times and ended up broke despite making money as a player. Tennis great Billie Jean King and others rallied around the legendary tennis star. Still, Gibson’s health declined and she died in 2003 at the age of 76 in East Orange, New Jersey.

Though other Black players like Zina Garrison and Lori O’Neal saw some success in the 80’s and 90’s, It would take over four decades for the Williams sisters to emerge and assert their dominance in the world of tennis.They considered Gibson an inspiration as their careers began to blossom in the late ’90’s and early 2000’s.

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