Born August 25, 1927, in Silver, SC; died of respiratory failure, September 28, 2003, in East Orange, NJ. Professional tennis player. Althea Gibson broke the color barrier in the world of tennis in the 1950s. She was the first black athlete ever to compete in a United States national championship match, and went on to win both the U.S. women's title and two Wimbledon Cups. An entire generation passed before another African American woman attained such ranks in the sport.
Gibson's path to fame was a remarkable one. Born to South Carolina sharecropper parents in 1927, she grew up in Harlem, the largely African–American section of New York City, where her father found work as a garage attendant. 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 skipping school and even 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. "The lean and muscular young woman had a dominating serve," noted New York Times writer Robert Mcg. Thomas Jr., "and her long, graceful reach often stunned opponents."
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. She turned pro soon afterward, playing exhibition matches at the halftime shows of Harlem Globetrotters games.
Gibson served as New Jersey state athletic commissioner until 1992, and recreation director for her town of East Orange. Twice married, she had no children, and suffered a series of financial setbacks in her later years, but supporters rallied to help her once again when her plight became public knowledge. Remarkably, her feat at Wimbledon was not repeated until 1990, when Zina Garrison became the second black woman in history to make it the finals there. Nine years later, American tennis prodigy Serena Williams repeated Gibson's achievement and became the first black woman to win a U.S. Open title in 41 years; in 2000, Serena's sister, Venus, won Wimbledon.
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 to urban youth. Following the news of Gibson's death, Venus Williams released a statement to the media. "I am honored to have followed in such great footsteps," Williams declared, according to Los Angeles Times writer Diane Pucin. "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."
Chicago Tribune, September 29, 2003, sec. 1, p. 1, p. 7; Los Angeles Times, September 29, 2003, p. A1, p. A21; New York Times, September 29, 2003, p. A21, October 2, 2003, p. A2; People, October 13, 2003, p. 94; Washington Post, September 29, 2003, p. A1, p. A6.
— Carol Brennan