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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Althea Gibson

The entrance of Negroes into national tennis is as inevitable as it has proven in baseball, in football, or in boxing; there is no denying so much talent. The committee at Forest Hills has the power to stifle the efforts of one Althea Gibson, who may or may not be succeeded by others of her race who have equal or superior ability. They will knock at the door as she has done. Eventually the tennis world will rise up en masse to protest the injustices perpetrated by our policymakers. Eventually -- why not now? ~ Alice Marble, American Lawn Tennis Magazine, 1950

Althea Gibson was born August 25, 1927 in Silver, South Carolina, and her family moved to Harlem when she was three. Her father taught her to box, and at age ten she began playing paddleball in Police Athletic League tournaments. Her skill caught the attention of local African American tennis players at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club.

In 1944 and 1945 Gibson won the girls' championship of the American Tennis Association, an African American organization similar to the whites-only United States Lawn Tennis Association. ATA officials recognized her potential to compete against USLTA opponents and in 1946 she was invited to move to North Carolina to train. Mentor Sugar Ray Robinson urged her to "go south". She lived with the family of ATA President Dr. Hubert Eaton in Wilmington, North Carolina during the school year and with Vice President Dr. Robert Johnson in the summers for the next three years while she finished high school, having dropped out several years earlier. After graduation from Wilmington High School she enrolled Florida A&M University, earning a degree in Physical Education in 1953. She then taught at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri.

Gibson won her first of ten consecutive ATA championships in 1947, and in 1950 was accepted to play in the U. S. Nationals only at the insistence of four-time women's champion Alice Marble. She only lasted until the second round that year, but two years later was ranked ninth in the United States and in 1956 won the women's singles and doubles at the French Championship. The next two years she won championships at Wimbledon and the U. S. Nationals, along with five more doubles titles. There would not be another African American champion at Wimbledon until Arthur Ashe in 1975.

In 1958 Gibson retired from playing in the USLTA. Before the open era began ten years later it was a strictly amateur association with no cash prizes beyond an expense allowance. There was no professional women's tennis at the time, and no endorsements were available. It is reported that she made $100,000 playing exhibition matches before Harlem Globetrotters games in 1960.

Gibson worked as a teaching pro and wrote an autobiography I Always Wanted to be Somebody. She recorded an album Althea Gibson Sings and appeared in the movie The Horse Soldiers. In 1964 was the first African American member of the LPGA, competing for fourteen years but never placing higher than second place in a tournament. She again encountered racism, once being allowed to compete at the Beaumont, Texas Country Club but being forbidden to used the clubhouse or the restrooms. In 1971 she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She became the New Hersey State Commissioner of Athletics in 1975 and also served on the Governor's Council on Physical Fitness.

Gibson died on September 28, 2003 at the age of 76. She was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.

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