black history sports submissions zine

Althea Gibson

This weeks Illustrated Woman in History was submitted by Moira Paul of Carve Her Name. It is featured in the Women’s History Month 2019 zine. Click here to buy

Althea Gibson was an American tennis player and professional golfer. In 1956, she became the first African American to win a Grand Slam title.

In 1999, Serena Williams was seeking advice on how to succeed at the highest level of international tennis. She sought out Althea Gibson, the first black person to win three of the four grand slam singles championships back in the 1950s. Althea had battled not only the best female players of the time but the discrimination that barred black players from competing at the highest level.

Althea Gibson was born in 1927 to share-croppers in South Carolina, USA. Her family moved to Harlem, New York City, when she was young. Learning to play on the street, by 1939 she was the NYC women’s paddle tennis champion. Her neighbourhood clubbed together to pay for membership and lessons at the nearby tennis club. She quickly progressed to winning the national championships of the American Tennis Association (ATA), an association for African-American players.

However, the precursor to the US Open, the United States National Championships, remained closed to her. Officially, there was no bar on racial grounds. However, players needed to accumulate points at sanctioned tournaments and many of these were held at white-only clubs that Althea could not enter. Alice Marble – who had won 18 grand slam titles in the 1930s – was one of the people to lobby against Althea’s exclusion from top-flight tennis. In 1950, the Nationals organisers invited Althea to play, getting around the bar. She was the first black player to step foot on the Forest Hills courts.

From then on, her career soared. In 1951, she was the first black player at Wimbledon. And in 1956 she became the first black player to win a grand slam tournament when she won both the French Open single and doubles championships. Wimbledon followed, first with a doubles win in 1956, then the singles in 1957. Returning from London, she became the second black person to receive a ticker tape parade through NYC. 

Later that year she won the US Nationals singles championship. In the space of two years, she became the singles champion in three of the four grand slams, as well as winning various doubles championships and reaching the finals of the Australian Open. She crowned 1957 by being named the female athlete of the year by  Associated Press and becoming the first black woman to appear on the cover of Timemagazine. 

The grand slams, however, didn’t pay. Retiring from the amateur game, Althea found she had to fight the same battles all over again on the professional circuit. Switching to golf, many clubhouses  would still not let her in. By the 1980s, after a stroke, she could no longer make rent or cover her medication costs. The tennis organisations did not respond to her requests for help but the tennis community did raising funds to support her. Althea Gibson died in 2003, having lived long enough to see Serena Williams follow her footsteps 

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