Althea Neale Gibson
(August 25, 1927-September 28, 2003)
Althea Neale Gibson was an American tennis player and professional golfer, and the first Black athlete to cross the color line of international tennis. In 1956, she became the first African American to win a Grand Slam title.
Gibson born in Silver, South Carolina to sharecropper parents move to Harlem at a young age. Gibson’s father found work as a garage attendant in the largely African–American section of New York City, where Gibson’s life at this time had its hardships. Her family struggled to make ends meet, living on public assistance for a time, and Gibson struggled in the classroom, often skipping school all together.
In a stroke of luck, the street on which their tenement apartment building sat on West 143rd Street had been closed off as a designated play area, and volunteers from the Police Athletic League (PAL) set up a paddle tennis court right in front of the building’s stoop.
Gibson took up the game at the age of nine, and three years later won the city paddle tennis title. Impressed by her natural athleticism, a PAL volunteer brought her to the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club in 1941, which was a local tennis facility open to both blacks and whites.
Gibson improved quickly under her coach at the Cosmopolitan, but was rebellious at home. She often defied her parents by staying out all night, and finally ran away from home. After a stint in a Roman Catholic shelter for teenaged girls, she became a ward of the city and was given a small rent stipend to live on her own. She was forced to take menial jobs to make ends meet but continued with her athletic training, and in 1942 won the first tennis tournament she ever entered. That title, the New York junior women’s, was granted by the American Tennis Association (ATA), an organization for black players. At the time, the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USTA) had no minority members.
In 1946, at the age of 19, Gibson was put in contact with two affluent black physicians, who sponsored both her and another promising young tennis player named Arthur Ashe. Gibson moved in with one of the families in North Carolina in order to finish high school, and went on to Florida A&M College. She continued to compete in ATA events, winning ten national championship titles in a row, and her prowess earned her a measure of media attention.
There were calls for her to be allowed to enter the USTA’s National Grass Court Championships at Forest Hills, New York, which was the precursor to the United States Open. But USTA officials declared that first Gibson must compete in a preliminary event—the catch being that organizers of such an event would have to extend an invitation. When none came, several USTA players rallied to the cause, led by Alice Marble, a former Wimbledon and U.S. Nationals titleholder.
Gibson made her debut on the courts of Forest Hills on August 28, 1950. She did well, very nearly unseating the current Wimbledon champion at the time, Louise Brough. The next year Gibson advanced all the way to Wimbledon, the legendary English event, but lost in the quarterfinals.
After finishing her Florida A&M degree in 1953, she was able to devote more time to her game, and emerged as a fearsome opponent over the next few years.
In 1956, Gibson won her first French championship, and the following year won both the singles and doubles titles at Wimbledon. She was feted with a ticker–tape parade in New York City when she returned, and went on to win the U.S. Open that summer as well.
Hailed in the press as a pioneering black athlete and inspiration to the civil–rights movement, Gibson was nevertheless wary of being linked to any cause. She won Wimbledon again in 1958 as well as the U.S. singles title, but there was no prize money in the sport at the time.
For a short time, too, the athletically gifted Gibson turned to golf, at 36, Gibson changed course and found herself making history again after earning status to play on the LPGA Tour.
While Gibson had support from the LPGA Tour and the players, her time in tennis prepared her for the hardships of playing golf professionally.
There were select clubs, like the Beaumont Country Club in Texas, that allowed Gibson to play but would not allow her into the clubhouse, denying her access to bathrooms and forcing her to change in her car.
Early on in Gibson’s golf career, she formed a friendship with fellow tour player Marlene Hagge. While Gibson was checking into a hotel, after calling and confirming her reservation, the hotel said that it neither had her reservation nor any space. Hagge walked into the lobby as Gibson tried to sort out her accommodations and overheard what was taking place. Hagge proceeded to sign in, asked for two keys and turned to Gibson and said, “You’re rooming with me.”
However, having spent years playing tennis, a sport predominantly for the white and wealthy, this did not phase her.
But failing to win on the course as she had on the courts, she eventually returned to tennis.
In 1968, with the advent of tennis’ Open era, Gibson tried to repeat her past success. She was too old and too slow-footed, however, to keep up with her younger counterparts.
Following her retirement, in 1971, Gibson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Beginning in 1975, she served 10 years as commissioner of athletics for New Jersey State. She was also a member of the governor’s council on physical fitness.
Gibson suffered strokes in her later years and was rarely seen in public after 1990. She died on September 28, 2003, at the age of 76 in an East Orange hospital following treatment for an infection and a respiratory ailment. She is survived by a brother and a sister, as well as by the Foundation bearing her name that she helped establish that provides athletic and educational opportunities for the urban youth.
Gibson’s goal was to become somebody, and in her quest to do so, she helped others become somebody too.
References for post: