Even those with little interest in sports generally recognize the names of such great athletes as Tiger Woods, Venus and Serena Williams, and Arthur Ashe. But those who follow tennis and golf more closely know the name of Althea Gibson, an athlete who broke many barriers and made it possible for other African-Americans to follow in her footsteps.
She was born in Silver in
Gibson did not like school and
skipped it as often as possible. Her father’s whippings had little impact. She
preferred to be outdoors doing something more active. In 1941 she finished
junior high and began attending the
Gibson was a good all around athlete, a tomboy in the parlance of the day. It had not taken long for others to recognize her athletic abilities. Paddleball led to tennis. Blues musician Buddy Walker, who worked for the city’s recreation program during the summer to supplement his income, spotted her. He thought she would be a good tennis player and encouraged her to try the game. Gibson recounted that her first time out she played so well that she attracted an audience from among the other players, including a teacher, Juan Serrell. Serrell belonged to the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club, where upper-class African-Americans played. He introduced her to the club’s tennis coach, Fred Johnson. The club members thought she had so much potential that they purchased a membership for her. In the summer of 1941, she began to take lessons at the Cosmopolitan Club. Although he only had one arm, Johnson taught the young teen how to play the game. Gibson found the hardest part of tennis was accepting the culture. Seeing how one should dress in tennis whites and behave politely while playing as hard as possible in order to win was difficult for her (Gibson, 27-30). She began to play as an amateur in 1942, winning a tournament at the age of 15 and becoming the New York State African-American girls’ singles champion. She played tennis under the auspices of the American Tennis Association (ATA), the organization for black players. In 1943 the organization did not hold a national tournament, but Gibson was the girls’ singles champion in 1944 and 1945. Cosmopolitan Club members paid her expenses so that she could travel to these events (Gibson, 31-33).
In 1945 Gibson turned 18 and
was no longer eligible for welfare benefits. She would have to become gainfully
employed. She moved in with a friend’s family and obtained a job as a waitress
to support herself, playing basketball and bowling for fun in her spare time.
Her friend, Gloria Nightingale, introduced her to boxer Sugar Ray Robinson and
his wife Edna, who became friends (Gibson, 34-36). Sugar Ray, along with a
The world probably would never
have heard of Althea Gibson if not for Dr. Hubert Eaton and Dr. Walter Johnson,
two African-American physicians who loved tennis and helped many young
African-Americans who wanted to play the game. They wanted Gibson to go to
college and play tennis, but she was a high school dropout (Gibson, 37). The
two men persuaded the 18 year old to move to Wilmington, NC and to attend high
school there. In
Gibson had made up her mind to finish high school, so she studied and managed to complete her degree in three years, graduating near the top of her class. However, she never did really fit in with the other students, perhaps because she was older, perhaps because she had grown up in the North, or perhaps because she preferred to play sports. She became the captain of the girls’ basketball team, and played football and baseball with the boys as often as she could. She also joined the school marching band, playing on a saxophone that Sugar Ray Robinson had purchased for her several years earlier. The school had no tennis team, so she had to play at home on Dr. Eaton’s tennis court (Gibson, 48-51; 57).
American Tennis Association (ATA) events were mostly self-contained in the 1940s and 1950s, and those who were present mostly kept to themselves. Virginia Glass, a former ATA president, noted in an interview that the tournaments were held on the campuses of traditionally black colleges. ATA tournaments included a range of social events for the participants, such as parties, card games, and even a fashion show. Gibson’s warm-up partner, Billy Davis, remembered her outstanding serve and volley game, stating “She just dominated everyone she played” (“Playing Tennis”). Her first summer with Dr. Johnson, Gibson won singles championships in all nine of the tournaments she entered, as well as eight mixed doubles championships while partnered with Dr. Johnson. Her biggest prize was the ATA women’s singles national title, which she would win for ten years straight beginning in 1947. Gibson’s self-assessment was quite accurate: “I was the best woman player in Negro tennis” (Gibson, 48-51). Gibson herself credited the ATA for giving her the opportunity to succeed, saying in its yearbook: “That first break for me came when the ATA took an interest in me…” (“Playing Tennis”).
By now Gibson wanted to go to
college. She applied to a number of traditionally black colleges, hoping that
her success in the tennis world would earn her a scholarship. Florida A & M
By the 1950s the white sports world was beginning to open its doors to black athletes. Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby had integrated professional baseball in 1947. The USLTA had also been forced to crack the door open in 1947 when Oscar Johnson, the ATA junior champion, indicated that he would sue in court if they did not allow him to play in the national indoor juniors tournament. He lost that year, but won the tournament in 1948. Dr. Johnson and Dr. Eaton had been pressuring the USLTA to allow Althea to play in their tournaments. Public opinion was beginning to shift in favor of allowing black athletes to play on the traditionally white circuits.
In July of 1950, American
Lawn Tennis Magazine published an editorial by tennis champ Alice Marble,
urging the tennis world to give Althea Gibson the opportunity to play in its
tournaments. Some years earlier, Gibson had seen Marble play and admired her
skill. Now she had another reason to admire her. Although Marble’s editorial
stirred the pot, Gibson was turned down when she requested an invitation to a
USLTA sanctioned state tournament in
In 1950, Gibson thus became
the first African-American to play tennis at the US Nationals at
Success would come slowly to
Althea Gibson. In the early 1950s, she continued to win the ATA tournaments,
but did not do well in USLTA events. Ranked number 9 in 1952 and number 7 in
1953, her ranking dropped to 13 in 1954. Gibson continued to work on her game.
At the suggestion of Sydney Llewellyn, a
It is impossible to know whether Gibson failed to win these early tournaments because she did not play as well as other competitors, or whether she was at least in part, a victim of discrimination. As an African-American, Gibson had to face prejudice on as well as off the court. When she played in USLTA-sanctioned events, referees called her for her mistakes, or faults, while letting the white players get by. Sometimes when she was scheduled to play in an event, it would be cancelled, and she would not have the opportunity to play against strong competitors and get the kind of experience she needed. Ostensibly, the matches would be cancelled because there were not enough players or enough of an audience (Obley).
In the meantime, Gibson needed
a paying job. After graduating from college, she took a teaching position at
After the tour ended in 1956,
Gibson headed for
Gibson’s tennis career would peak in the mid to late 1950s, in the years just before and just after her 30th birthday. In 1956 Gibson won her first “major,” the French Open. She was the first African-American to win that title (Bamberger; “Arthur Ashe…”). Those who watched her play in this and other tournaments were impressed by her strength and by her ability. Sports Illustrated said of her: “She moves rangily around the court like a slightly awkward panther…” At the age of 13, future tennis champion Billie Jean King watched Gibson play. She later remembered that day, saying: “My heart was pounding…I thought…I hope I can play like that someday” (Ballard).
Gibson did not win the 1956 US
Open, losing in the finals. Although Gibson was under a great deal of pressure
because of the media attention, she refused to blame anyone but herself for her
loss. She was beginning to believe that she was good enough to win. Meanwhile,
other tournaments from around the world sent her invitations to play tennis.
She was subsequently invited to play in the Pacific Southwest Championships in
Gibson was finally ready to
dominate the game. The next two years would be banner years for her. She won
While the tennis world recognized her talent, even if reluctantly, Gibson remained a victim of the same kinds of discrimination experienced by all African-Americans, no matter how famous. Travel was difficult for African-Americans in the 1950s. Public accommodations were segregated. Some hotels would not admit her as a guest, even as she became a rising tennis star. When supporters wanted to hold a luncheon to recognize her, one hotel turned them down (Chua-Eoan). Such discrimination would not become illegal until Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Despite this Gibson did not become bitter. She simply took the attitude that such policies, while foolish, were not important. In her autobiography, she commented “Maybe I can’t stay overnight at a good hotel in Columbia, South Carolina, or play a tennis match against a white opponent in the sovereign state of Louisiana, which has a law against such a social outrage, but I can get along without sleeping at the Wade Hampton and I don’t care if I never set foot in Louisiana. There is, I have found out, a whole lot of world outside Louisiana – and that goes for South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, and all the other places where they haven’t got the message yet…” (Gibson, 157). She simply went about her life, continuing to tour and continuing to play.
Tennis did not make Gibson
rich. From the beginning, she had to depend on others to help her cover her
expenses. Boxer Joe Lewis bought her a plane ticket for her first
After retiring from tennis,
Gibson turned to another venue that was close to her heart. She liked to sing,
and had won a prize in an amateur singing contest as a teenager in 1943. In the
years after, as she noted “I was never without a song on my lips” (Gibson and
Curtis, 22). During her years playing amateur tennis she had often been asked
to sing before the crowds. In 1957, she began to work with a voice coach,
but juggling her voice lessons with playing tennis was difficult. A record
company official who heard her sing at a testimonial dinner asked her to record
an album. Although it seemed that her career had taken a new direction,
luck was not on her side. She had little time to work on the songs, and came
down with the flu shortly before her scheduled recording date. All the songs
would be recorded in one session. As she notes, “…conditions were far from
ideal” (Gibson and Curtis, 31). The album was released in 1958. She was
subsequently asked to appear on the Ed Sullivan show and sing. Although she
received mixed reviews from the critics, Sullivan asked her to return a second
time and to sing another song. Despite the popularity of the Ed Sullivan show,
her album did not sell well. However, by this time Gibson was on her way to
what she hoped would be a
Despite that disappointment, other doors were opening. Gibson would have the opportunity to earn a good salary as part of an opening act for the Harlem Globetrotters, the popular entertainers who played their own version of basketball before crowds all over the world. Gibson was becoming a businesswoman, forming a corporation that would negotiate a figure of more than $80,000 for the first year’s tour. While much of the money would go to cover expenses, it was still, in Gibson’s words, “a breathtaking sum…” (Gibson and Curtis, 51). She might even be able to save some money. Gibson would play tennis with another tennis player before each game or during the halftime period.
She asked an old friend and
competitor, Karol Fageros, to join her in that role. In late 1959, they began
an exhausting tour that stretched from one end of the nation to the other. When
the tour ended in April of 1960, Gibson had salted away enough money to make a
down payment on a house for her family, and had attracted the interest of Ward
Baking Company. For the next five years, she would earn $25,000 a year by
making speeches about her life experiences at civic functions all around the
country under Ward’s sponsorship, fitting these events into her schedule.
The Globetrotters asked Gibson to join them on their international tour, but she
turned them down. Gibson hoped she could earn even more money with her own
basketball-tennis tour. As she laid her plans, she donated her time for free
tennis clinics and played in a professional tournament in
During the next several years, which she described as “the lowest moment of my career” (Gibson and Curtis, 96), Gibson traveled extensively for Ward Baking Company, making numerous public appearances. She began to save money and pay back the money she owed. She no longer wished to play tennis, but she needed a physical outlet. Her thoughts began to turn to golf and to new challenges. Gibson had enjoyed playing golf for many years. As she noted in her autobiography, she had thought about a professional career in golf as early as 1958. A fine athlete who excelled at many sports, she could drive a golf ball well over 200 yards down the fairway. Gibson had never had any formal training in golf, but many observers had noted her natural ability. Although she was already in her early 30s, she might be able to play this game and to win. She persuaded her sponsor, Ward Baking Company, to continue to provide support so that she could take lessons and practice, although she would have to do this at public courses. Most private courses did not allow African-Americans to join or to play. Many also did not allow women of any race on the links.
Thus, in 1961 Gibson took up
golf and began to work toward earning her player’s card so that she could
compete in professional tournaments and be eligible to win money. She practiced
on public courses that were often crowded, and often had to play with
strangers. She worked hard but found a kind of peace in the rhythm of the game.
It was almost a religious experience for her. But playing golf was
expensive, even on public courses. Ward Baking Company was her main source of
income, and would continue to be so until the company terminated the contract
in 1965. Finally, Jerry Volpe, who was both owner and pro at the Englewood Golf
Club and who thought Gibson had potential, gave her an honorary membership in
his club. This freed her from some of the financial pressures. She was the only
African-American to hold a membership there at that time (Gibson and Curtis,
107-112). Gibson was finding that her years of tennis adversely affected her
swing. For example, she tended to hook the ball, curving the ball to the left.
Her putting game also needed a lot of work. Finally, she felt she was ready.
She played in a few amateur tournaments before playing in her first
professional tournament at Kenwood Country Club in
Gibson had notified the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) of her intention to play golf as a professional. Now she had to compete. She would have to score in the top 80% in three out of four successive LPGA tournaments in order to win the coveted player’s card. Gibson did not play well enough in 1963 to win her player’s card. But she continued to work on her game, and played well enough win the card in 1964. However, it was not all smooth sailing even from that point on. Just as in her tennis playing days, she sometimes experienced discrimination. At some clubs, she was allowed to play on the course but not permitted to use the facilities at the clubhouse. Once she had her player’s card, she felt that she was in a position to complain to the LPGA. In her autobiography, she notes that on more than one occasion, a club that had humiliated her in this manner subsequently lost its LPGA tournament. Whether her complaints were the sole cause is impossible to say (Gibson and Curtis, 134-136).
Although she did not win and
made little money, she played in 171 tournaments between 1963 and 1977. Bob
Botsch, an avid golfer (and co-editor of this web page) saw her play in an LPGA
As Gibson approached the end of her professional career, she began to contribute in other ways to the world of sports. She taught tennis clinics and gave lectures about physical fitness (“Teeing it up”). Winning had always been important to Gibson, and she would tell young players to “focus on what you’re supposed to do, not what’s around you.” She encouraged young players who were beginning to play professional tennis to think big. Leslie Allen, who won many tournaments during her career, noted that Gibson urged her and others to focus on winning tournaments. “It changed my whole mindset” she said (Amdur).
With her friend Frances
Clayton Gray, Gibson founded an organization to help young people who wanted to
play tennis or golf, the Althea
Gibson Foundation (Strunsky; Obley). She was appointed as
Although recognition was late
in coming, Althea Gibson received a number of honors in her lifetime, as well
as some that were posthumous. In 1971 Gibson was inducted into the International
Tennis Hall of Fame. In 1988 Gibson gave her
With little time for anything
but athletic competition, Gibson did not marry until she was in her thirties.
She was married twice and had no children (“First Black Tennis Champion”).
Sadly, she had no immediate family to be with her in her final years, when she
At a memorial service held at
a Newark, NJ church, David Dinkins, former mayor of New York, summed up
Gibson’s contributions, saying “A lot of folks stood on her shoulders…I’m not
just talking about black folks, but many others who were inspired by what she
achieved.” Zina Garrison, who in 1990 became the first African-American
In a commemorative article written after her death, a Sports Illustrated writer noted “Gibson had a huge serve and at five foot eleven inches, extraordinary reach” (Ballard). Tony Trabert, who played tennis around the same time as Gibson, noted that she played as hard as she could and was not afraid to take chances. “She hits the ball and plays like a man” Trabert said, strong praise from a player of that generation (Amdur). It is hard to say what heights Althea Gibson might have achieved if doors had been opened to her at a younger age.
*Gibson states in her first autobiography, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody, that she was born on August 25, as do some accounts of her life. Others state that her date of birth was April 25.
Pictures of Gibson can be viewed on a number of websites, including that of the Althea Gibson Foundation.
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Althea Gibson b. 1927.” People Weekly 60 (
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“Althea Gibson Chronology.” Biography of Althea Gibson. Accessed online at http://www.altheagibson.com/bio.html on 6/21/04.
Amdur, Neil. “2002 US Open
Preview; After 50 Years, Gibson Hasn’t Lost Her Luster.” New York Times (
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the White Lines:
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Botsch, Robert E. Personal interview. August 20, 2004.
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who was somebody: while the world celebrates tennis, a pioneer languishes in
Crumbo, Chuck. “
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Althea Gibson dies in
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Game, But Gave Much More.” The State (
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Obley, Patrick. “Forgotten.” The
“Overlooked Heroine” in
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Without Fanfare She Deserves.” The State (
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Misses Some Giants.” The State (
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Hailed as a Pioneer.” The State (
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Illlustrated 73 (
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Carol Sears Botsch
Associate Professor of Political Science, USC Aiken