Althea Gibson represents to black professional tennis players what Jackie Robinson is to American blacks in Major League Baseball. Gibson, a 1950s era player, pioneered the way for Arthur Ashe, Zina Garrison and the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena. The difference between Gibson and Robinson is that most Americans instantly recognize Jackie’s name, while only a handful of septuagenarians who followed tennis decades ago remember Gibson. In 1950, Gibson broke the tennis color barrier when she became the first black to play in New York’s national tennis championship, now called the U.S. Open.
Gibson’s family migrated from South Carolina to Harlem in 1929. For Althea to become the world’s №1 ranked women’s tennis player 20 years later seemed improbable, but turned into reality.
In her early years, Gibson, a lanky six-footer, passed her time fighting with street gangs and shoplifting. Her father, a garage worker, wanted Althea to become a professional boxer. But Althea took to basketball and ping-pong. After she won the city’s paddle tennis championship at age 10, a Police Athletic League supervisor bought her two used tennis racquets. From that moment on, Gibson’s tennis career, although still limited to the black circuit, took off. Althea joined the Cosmopolitan Club, a local black tennis club where the most prosperous Harlem residents played. Gibson soon beat all comers. The impressed club members sent Althea on the nationwide, all-black American Tennis Association tour.
By 1947, at age 20, Gibson won her first ATA title and went on to win 10 national championships, a still-standing record. By the end of the 1950s, Althea had collected 11 Grand Slam titles, including multiple championships at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the French Open, where, in 1956, she won titles in singles and doubles. After winning the 1957 Wimbledon title, New York City honored Gibson with a Broadway ticker-tape parade, an event normally reserved for international dignitaries and World Series winners.
After Gibson retired from tennis, she launched into golf, and in 1964 became the first black woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association. Gibson played 171 events between 1963 and 1977, but never won a title. Although she was one of the LPGA’s top 50 money winners for five years, over the course of her golf career, she earned a meager $19,250.25. But, as she did in tennis, Gibson opened doors for black female golfers like Shasta Averyhardt, Sadena Parks, Mariah Stackhouse, Cheyenne Woods and Ginger Howard. When she learned about Gibson’s groundbreaking LPGA involvement, Howard said that “breaking those barriers” (golf and tennis were played almost exclusively by wealthy whites) was “a huge step.”
Had Gibson played in today’s era alongside Williams, she would have earned vast wealth and Hollywood-like fame. Forbes placed Williams’ net worth at $260 million, and Serena, who has more than a dozen corporate partners, is even more successful off the court where she’s grossed more than $340 million. Today, Williams’ primary focus is Serena Ventures which has $111 million invested in 60 seed companies.
Gibson, on the other hand, was born poor and lived in poverty most of her life. Before she died in near-bankruptcy in 2003, her finances were so dire that fellow champion Billie Jean King helped her pay off her debts. During Gibson’s tennis heyday, prize money was not awarded, and she had no corporate endorsements. After her playing days ended, Gibson struggled to make ends meet by touring with the Harlem Globetrotters, representing a national baking company and giving tennis lessons.
But Gibson is finally getting her due. In 2019, a statue honoring her was unveiled outside Arthur Ashe Stadium. In Harlem, a street has been renamed Althea Gibson Way, and the U.S. Mint may soon produce a 25-cent piece with Gibson’s image. Remembering Althea, Billie Jean said that she “always felt connected to her and thankful and grateful for what she’s done for people of color and me.”
Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers Association member. Contact him at email@example.com.