The Groundbreaking Althea Gibson

Althea Gibson at Wimbledon (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Although she doesn’t get the recognition that Jackie Robinson did, 1950s athlete Althea Gibson was as much a groundbreaker in sports desegregation as the well-known baseball player. A two-sport athlete, Gibson excelled at both tennis and golf but, like Robinson, found herself banned from the playing field because of the color of her skin. But she persisted, and in 1950, she became the first African-American tennis player to compete at a U.S. national tennis competition, paving the way for other African-American tennis players to come, including Arthur Ashe, and Venus and Serena Williams. 

The Harlem Native Skipped School to Play Sports

Althea Gibson loved sports…all sports. But she hated school. She often skipped school to play basketball in her neighborhood, much to her father’s disapproval. She didn’t pick up a tennis racket until the age of 14, but when she did, she knew that she had found her passion. In the mid-1940s, she dropped out of high school because she hated it, and spent her time practicing tennis. 

Gibson Competed in All-Black Tennis Tournaments

At the time when Jackie Robinson was making headlines for breaking the color barrier in professional baseball, Althea Gibson was restricted to playing in tennis tournaments hosted by the American Tennis Association, a nearly all-black organization. Her skills on the court, however, were catching the attention of members of the white tennis community. 

Gibson Got a Boost from Two White Doctors, Tennis Enthusiasts, and Civil Rights Activists

Two prominent doctors, Hubert Eaton from North Carolina, and Robert W. Johnson from Virginia had a lot in common aside from their professions. Both were avid tennis players and promoters and both were active in the Civil Rights Movements. And, they were both inspired by Jackie Robinson’s actions toward creating racial equality in sports. Then Althea Gibson caught their eye. 
Althea Gibson and Sugar Ray Robinson greet each other in London ahead of Wimbledon. (

Sugar Ray Robinson Gave Althea Gibson Advice

The doctors Eaton and Johnson had an offer for Gibson, but it would involve doing two things she did not want to do…leave New York and go back to school. It was Sugar Ray Robinson and his wife, friends of Gibson’s, who told her that if she wanted to reach the next level in her sport, she would need to be coached by experts. Gibson agreed and accepted the two doctors’ offer. She moved south and spent her summer with Johnson and his family in Virginia, and the school year with Eaton and his family in North Carolina. She received both coaching and discipline…and her high school diploma a few years later. 

Gibson Petitioned to be Admitted to the 1950 U.S. Nationals

Since Jackie Robinson had paved the way for African-American athletes, Gibson thought that she would be permitted to compete in the 1950 U.S. Nationals. She had been turned away from this organization in previous years, but Gibson felt that the time was right in 1950…both because her skill level had improved and because the racial climate in the United States was beginning to change. But it appeared that she was going to be iced out yet again. Then four-time U.S. Nationals winner, Alice Marble, was quoted in American Lawn Tennis magazine as saying, “If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of players, then it’s only fair that they meet this challenge on the courts.” Gibson was permitted to join the tournament. 

Gibson Won Her First U.S. Nationals Match

When she made her historic appearance at the 1950s U.S. Nationals, Gibson proved she could compete with the top white tennis players in the country. In her first match, she bested Barbara Knapp. Her second match proved a bit more problematic. Gibson played against Louise Brough, a three-time Wimbledon champ. Gibson lost the first set but rallied to win the second. She was leading the third set when lightning forced them to delay the match. When play resumed, Gibson had lost her stride and Brough won. 

More Victories Followed

Undeterred by her loss to Brough, Gibson set her sights on bigger stages. In 1956, Gibson won the French Open in Paris, her first major international victory. The next year, she won at Wimbledon. After a few more Wimbledon titles and a U.S. Open title, Gibson announced her retirement from amateur tennis and her intention to go pro. Professional tennis during the 1950s was not a well-organized program so Gibson earned money by joining the Harlem Globetrotters and played in exhibition tennis matches during halftime at their basketball games. 

Gibson was the Female Athlete of the Year

Gibson became the first African-American to be elected as the Associated Press’s Female Athlete of the Year in 1957. She repeated that honor the next year. She was later inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. Her contributions to racial equality in sports are often overshadowed by those of Jackie Robinson, but her determination and passion for the game showed that tennis can be dominated by an athlete of any color. 

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