Before Serena Williams: 8 Amazing Facts About the Tennis Icon Althea Gibson

She Moved North to Escape the Jim Crow South

Althea Gibson (Aug. 25, 1927 – Sept. 28, 2003) was part of the Great Migration northward when Black people from the south moved to the urban and industrialized north to escape Jim Crow. She came from the little town of Silver, South Carolina and ended up in Harlem. Her family was hopeful for a new life but they soon learned that the north was not much different from the south. Gibson and her family experienced tough economic hardships.


She Was a Table Tennis Champion

The first sport Gibson played was table tennis. She was so good at it that she became a local champion and captured the attention of musician Buddy Walker who inspired her to play tennis for real. In 1941, Gibson started playing at the local Harlem River Tennis Courts.

Her Early Career Was Impressive

Within a year, Gibson became a tennis champion playing tournaments hosted by the American Tennis Association that was Black operated and owned and focused entirely on the success of Black players. In 1944 and 1945, she held two ATA titles. Between 1947-1956, she won ten straight titles, making her one of the best.



She Broke Down Barriers

In the 1950s, Gibson hit her stride. She was ranked seventh by the United States Tennis Association in 1952 and she graduated from Florida A&M in 1953. However, this decade was marked by her groundbreaking appearance at Wimbledon. It all started when Gibson was selected in the U.S National Championships, now known as the U.S Open, on her 23rd birthday. She competed against reigning champion Louise Brough but lost in a rain-plagued three-set match. Her loss attracted national media attention anyway, and this loss helped launch her international career.

She Was the First Black Champion at Wimbledon

In 1955, Gibson competed in international exhibitions in Europe and Asia, winning 16 out of 18 of the matches she played. The following two years were her greatest in terms of breaking down racial boundaries and winning big. In 1956, Gibson became the first Black woman to win the Grand Slam event in the French Open singles championship and doubles championship. In the same year, she won the the Wimbledon doubles championship with Angela  Buxton and other tournaments in Europe and Asia. In 1957, Gibson went back to Wimbledon and won big, becoming the first Black champion in the 80-year history of the tournament. After her win, she appeared on the cover of TIME.


althea gibson golfing

She Had a Golfing Career

Gibson’s golfing career was not as successful as her tennis career. She broke racial barriers by being the first Black woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association and to compete on a pro tour but Gibson did not win. In many cases she was not allowed to played at certain courses because of Jim Crow and segregation. From 1961-78, she tried golf but ultimately returned to tennis.

Her Career Was Groundbreaking

In 1971, Gibson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame for her groundbreaking accolades. In 1975, she still was involved with sports, acting as the commissioner of athletics for New Jersey state and serving as a member of the governor’s council on physical fitness.



Her Legacy Is Iconic

Gibson paved the way for Black women in the world of tennis by being steadfast and extremely talented. She won 11 Grand Slam tournaments, including six doubles titles, and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She became one of the first six women to be part of International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. In 2013, Gibson was commemorated with her own U.S Postal Stamp. She also has numerous tennis courts named after her around the country.

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