Serena and Venus Williams are no strangers to the spotlight in today’s world for their great success as female athletes in tennis and their powerful presence in the media outside of sports. However, another black female tennis player made waves and broke barriers decades before the Williams sisters. Althea Gibson was the first black athlete to participate in global tennis championships and win those championships. Following Jackie Robinson’s breakthroughs, Althea Gibson is also a prominent figure when it comes to discussing the desegregation of sports.
Breaking the Barriers
Jackie Robinson is commonly known for breaking the color barriers in baseball when he was signed onto the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 (History). Until then, sports were separated by race into completely different leagues. Robinson had to endure multiple levels of intense racism during his debut in the Major Baseball League, but he did so out of courage and strength. It was in 1950 that women’s tennis would experience a similar phenomenon.
Althea Gibson was the first African American to play in the national women’s tennis championships in Queens at the West Side Tennis Club. She was near victory when the game was suspended. Upon the continuation of the match, Gibson, unfortunately, lost her lead but not without earning the achievement of becoming the first black tennis player to be globally ranked as number one.
Furthermore, Gibson also became the first African American to win a Grand Slam title at the 1956 French Championships. Once Gibson overcame the racism from her opponents and tennis spectators, she did not stop achieving greatness and making history.
A Woman of Many Firsts
In 1957, Althea Gibson became the first black player to be invited to the Wimbledon championship, which she won two years in a row and accepted the trophy from Queen Elizabeth II (Jacobs). During these years, Gibson won the title of the women’s singles championship at Forest Hills.
Among winning other global tournaments, Gibson was also voted Female Athlete of the Year for 1957 and 1958 and was the first African American to receive this award. While the world of female sports was relatively small, and Gibson had won so many tennis awards, she also began her career in professional golf.
Unsurprisingly, Gibson would be the first black member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association when she joined in 1964 (Britannica). From there, she continued to work in sports administration for the state of New Jersey but ultimately retired from her tennis and golf careers altogether by the 1970s. She was finally elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971, but although she was receiving global recognition, she struggled on a personal level. As she said in her 1958 autobiography, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody, “you can’t eat a crown.”
Struggling to Survive
While Althea Gibson’s successes are bright in the sense of racial and gender equality, things were not necessarily equal during her era. Throughout her athletic career, Gibson did not receive much of an income, so she struggled to survive towards the end of the century (Jacobs). According to one of her close friends, she worked so badly to meet the basic needs of survival that she contemplated suicide. However, her friend reached out to the publishers of a tennis magazine to include requests for Gibson’s donations. Enough funds were raised for Gibson to buy a convertible and continue living for a few more years.
Althea Gibson was a woman of many firsts, and I think she has received little acknowledgement, especially outside of the world of sports. It is important to recognize not only prominent figures of civil rights but also those who played a part in the social acceptance of integration rather than just fighting for laws. By being such a prominent figure in sports, a pastime of the wealthy, mostly white, athletes such as Gibson show people all around the world that a black woman is just as capable if not more capable than a white woman.
An interesting perspective Gibson provides comes from a 1957 interview where she said, “I don’t consider myself to be a representative of my people. I’m thinking of me and nobody else.” Considering the context of this quote in the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement, I think it is interesting that Gibson sees herself as an individual being rather than fighting the fight of all African Americans. In a way, this point of view allowed her to bust through the barriers in sports and raise awareness of the inequalities she endured as a black female.
While she may not have said so herself, Althea Gibson made history for not only African Americans but women by living for herself. She lived to do what she wanted and showed others like her not to care about the barriers. Nonetheless, she was unjustly treated during her era of success, but ultimately, people came together to support her in her time of need. She never directly asked for help because she was a woman with unwavering independence, but she still received the support she needed. By reflecting on her powerful independence, I can have more confidence as a woman of color to achieve my goals.