Tennis and Golf Pro
Americans have long been entranced with sports figures, particularly in the 20th century, and have enthusiastically followed the exploits of athletes in a variety of sports. Yet along with this admiration often came an unfortunate attitude characteristic of the time–racial prejudice. Of course, this meant that often gifted Black athletes simply could not achieve the recognition they deserved, because of the color of their skin. We remember Jackie Robinson, the first African-American man to play major league baseball, but there were of many others–male and female–who struggled with quiet dignity to reach their goals. And one of these was Althea Gibson, renowned in the areas of tennis and golf who was, according to one source, “one of the first Black athletes to cross the color line of international tennis.” In fact, fellow tennis star Billie Jean King once said of Gibson, “Her road to success was a challenging one, but I never saw her back down.”
Born in August, 1927 in South Carolina, Althea Neale Gibson’s family were sharecroppers. In 1930 they moved to Harlem, in New York City, to seek a better life. There from an early age, Althea practiced and succeeded in the area of sports, particularly in team sports as those sponsored by her community. Though she particularly excelled in paddle tennis, becoming city champion in 1939, the next year she dropped out of school.
Then in 1940 some of Althea’s neighbors came together to fund tennis lessons for her, though at first she disliked the game, considering it only for weak people. However, she trained and competed, and began to win competitions and championships. She later wrote, “I knew that I was an unusual, talented girl, through the grace of God. I didn’t need to prove that to myself. I only wanted to prove it to my opponents.”
Then a prominent Virginia physician who made it a point to mentor promising young athletes (later he would also assist Arthur Ashe) took an interest in Althea, and helped her with more training and competition opportunities. As she attended and graduated from Florida A&M University, she then tried to enter further competitions, and there were more difficulties. At the time the sport of tennis was largely a white-dominated, white-sponsored sport, often operating under segregated conditions.
Things began to change in 1950 when Alice Marble, former top winning player, wrote a disapproving letter to a tennis magazine harshly criticizing the exclusion of Gibson and other Black players from major tournaments. This brought new attitudes and opportunities soon began to be open for Black players. A year later Gibson had become the first African-American player to compete at England’s prestigious Wimbledon tournament. She also rose in the listings of top ranking numbers of tennis players. In 1955 she embarked on a State Department-sponsored international tour of Asia to play exhibition matches with major figures. Also, audiences in Burma, Ceylon, India, and Thailand were supportive because they could feel an affinity with Althea because she was “a woman of color” like themselves. Also, the tour served to strengthen Althea’s confidence.
In 1957 she became the first Black champion in Wimbledon’s 80 year history, and was the first champion to receive her trophy from Queen Elizabeth II. In fact she later remarked, “Shaking hands with the Queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus.” On her return to the U.S. she was honored with a parade in New York City–the second Black athlete after Jesse Owens–as well as accepting an important medal from the city mayor.
By 1958 with many other wins, Gibson was named Female Athlete of the Year by a major press agency, and became the first Black woman to appear on the covers of major news magazines. Occasionally she could earn a large amount of money–such as the time when she was paid $100,000 to play a series of games before a Harlem Globetrotters basketball game. But such opportunities were apparently uncommon and eventually she retired from professional tennis.
Althea was also a skilled vocalist, and released an album in 1959 then performed on national TV variety programs. However, her success was limited. At that time she also played a slave woman in the movie The Horse Soldiers but refused to speak in the expected “Negro dialect” as the script dictated. She also published her first book I Always Wanted to Be Somebody in 1960.
There was another career move when Althea became the first Black woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA). Again, there were racial restrictions in golf since local golf clubs refused to admit Blacks to their clubs and sometimes to their tournaments. In fact, even if she could play golf at a club she was not allowed access to the locker rooms, forcing her sometimes to change clothes in her car. Regardless, she still competed where possible and often won. Which meant that she was among the LPGA’s top 50 money winners for five years.
Ms. Gibson retired from professional golf in 1978 but she had developed great respect from her fellow players. Fellow LPGA member Judy Rankin remarked that “She came along during a difficult time in golf, gained the support of a lot of people, and quietly made a difference.”
In 1971 Ms. Gibson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, and then beginning in 1975 served as commissioner of athletics for New Jersey State, and was a member of the governor’s council on physical fitness.
However by the 1980s Ms. Gibson’s deteriorating health led to a stroke in 1992. Then when continuing medical expenses depleted her funds, the tennis community supported her. In early 2003 though Gibson had earlier survived a heart attack, by September she had passed away, due to complications from various infections.
Indeed, Althea Gibson had to cope with prejudice and financial difficulties, in her illustrative career. At the same time she proved the true champion, as she gained the respect of her fellow athletes, and audiences.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.