Black Women Who Slayed History: Althea Gibson

This Black History Month, we’re highlighting the black woman who helped make our world what it is today. Today, we honor Althea Gibson.

We all love Serena & Venus Williams, but if it wasn’t for Althea Gibson being the first black athlete to cross the color lines of international tennis, many talented athletes wouldn’t get the shine they deserve. Born on August 25, 1927, in South Carolina, Althea’s parents were sharecroppers on a cotton farm when she was born. When the Great Depression hit America pretty hard, especially hard for poorer black southern families, her parents decided to move up North to Harlem, NY.

Thanks to Harlem’s PAL (Police Athletic League) in her neighborhood, she was able to learn how to play paddle tennis. Althea won the NYC Women’s Paddle Championship in 1939 and the rest is literally history. The next year her neighborhood raised money for Althea to take tennis lessons at a Harlem tennis club. From her popularity and buzz, she drew the attention of many higher ups in the tennis world and started competing in competitions and later in the United States Tennis Association.

In 1949 she became the first black woman, and the second black athlete to play in the USTA’s National Indoor Championships, where she reached the quarter-finals. Following this she attended college on a full-ride scholarship for athletes. Once she graduated college in 1953, it was hard for her to to succeed due to all the barriers for African Americans. She even considered leaving professional sports to join the Army to make money. More people of color were starting to join sports teams that once was literally illegal to join, but these industries were still dominated by white men.

In 1956 Althea became the first person of color to win a “Grand Slam” title in the French Open and made history when she became the first African-American ever invited to play at Wimbledon. She won at Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals all in the same year.  A year later, she was a Top 10 player in the U.S. She then climbed even higher, to No. 7 in 1953. She was voted female player of the year multiple times by the Associated Press as well as many other awards over the years.

Althea didn’t stop at tennis either. She continued to make history by becoming the first African-American competitor on the women’s pro golf tour in the 1960’s. According to many historical sites, Althea Gibson downplayed her pioneering role in tennis and golf. “I have never regarded myself as a crusader, I always wanted to be somebody. I don’t consciously beat the drums for any cause, not even the negro in the United States.” 

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