On July 6, 1957, Althea Gibson became the first black tennis player to win Wimbledon. By breaking long-standing racial barriers in tennis, as well as professional golf, she was a trailblazer for many black athletes to follow.
Gibson was born on August 25, 1927, in Silver, SC. Growing up in Harlem, Gibson’s family had trouble making ends meet. Meanwhile, Gibson was not a fan of school and often skipped class. Sports became one of her only refuges. She became a local table tennis champion. Musician Buddy Walker noticed her talent and invited her to play tennis on the local courts.
Gibson won several local tennis tournaments and then, in 1941, she began playing at the Harlem River Tennis Courts. Even though she had only been playing tennis for a year, she won a tournament sponsored by the American Tennis Association (ATA). She picked up two more ATA titles in 1944 and 1945. Then, after losing one title in 1946, she won 10 straight titles from 1947 to 1956.
Despite Gibson dominating the court at the ATA tournaments, she was barred from competing in the world’s best tournaments due to the color of her skin. In 1950, former No.1 tennis player Alice Marble wrote an article for American Lawn Tennis Magazine, strongly criticizing these discriminatory practices that held back talented tennis players, like Gibson. Marble’s article was extremely influential, resulting in Gibson becoming the first black player to compete at the U.S. National Championships in 1950 and at Wimbledon in 1951.
In 1956 she won the French Open, becoming the first person of color to win a Grand Slam title. After becoming the first black person to win a championship Wimbledon in 1957, she returned home to a ticker tape parade in New York City.
Gibson turned pro in 1959. Aside from continuing to win on the court, she started to bring in money. She reportedly received $100,000 for playing a series of matches before Harlem Globetrotter games. Gibson also became the first black woman to compete on a professional golf tour.
Gibson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971. She dedicated the rest of her life to promoting athletics and the importance of physical fitness. She died of respiratory failure on September 28, 2003. However, the tennis pioneer’s legacy lives on as we watch players like Serena and Venus Williams dominate the court today.