Althea Gibson (August 25, 1927 – September 28, 2003) was an American tennis player and professional golfer, and the first black athlete of either gender to cross the color line of international tennis. In 1956 she became the first person of color to win a Grand Slam title (the French Open). The following year she won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals (precursor of the U.S. Open), then won both again in 1958, and was voted Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press in both years. In all she won 11 Grand Slam tournaments, including six doubles titles, and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. “She is one of the greatest players who ever lived,” said Robert Ryland, a tennis contemporary and former coach of Venus and Serena Williams. “Martina couldn’t touch her. I think she’d beat the Williams sisters.” In the early 1960s she also became the first black player to compete on the women’s professional golf tour.
At a time when racism and prejudice were widespread in sports and in society, Gibson was often compared to Jackie Robinson. “Her road to success was a challenging one,” said Billie Jean King, “but I never saw her back down. To anyone, she was an inspiration, because of what she was able to do at a time when it was enormously difficult to play tennis at all if you were black,” said former New York City Mayor David Dinkins. “I am honored to have followed in such great footsteps,” wrote Venus Williams. “Her accomplishments set the stage for my success, and through players like myself and Serena and many others to come, her legacy will live on.”
Gibson was born on August 25, 1927, in the town of Silver in Clarendon County, South Carolina, to Daniel and Annie Bell Gibson, who worked as sharecroppers on a cotton farm. The Great Depression hit rural southern farmers sooner than much of the rest of the country, so in 1930 the family moved to Harlem, where Althea’s three sisters and brother were born. Their apartment was located on a stretch of 143rd Street that had been designated a Police Athletic League play area; during daylight hours it was barricaded so that neighborhood children could play organized sports. Gibson quickly became proficient in paddle tennis, and by 1939, at the age of 12, she was the New York City women’s paddle tennis champion.
In 1950, in response to intense lobbying by ATA officials and Alice Marble—who published a scathing open letter in the magazine American Lawn Tennis Gibson received an invitation to compete in the United States National Championships (now the U.S. Open) at Forest Hills. She was the first black player of either gender ever selected, and made her debut on her 23rd birthday. Although she lost narrowly in the second round in a rain-delayed, three-set match to Louise Brough, the reigning Wimbledon champion and former U.S. National winner, her participation received extensive national and international coverage. “No Negro player, man or woman, has ever set foot on one of these courts,” wrote journalist Lester Rodney at the time. “In many ways, it is even a tougher personal Jim Crow-busting assignment than was Jackie Robinson’s when he first stepped out of the Brooklyn Dodgers dugout.”