Althea Gibson: Tennis Turmoil and Triumph

A young African American woman, Althea Gibson, smiles at the camera.

“Tennis Queen,” Arizona Tribune (Phoenix, AZ), February 12, 1960.

On July 6, 1957, a hot summer’s day, the Queen of England stood in her floral dress and bejeweled necklace and handed a shining golden plate to the tall, confident American who had just won both the singles and doubles titles at the world-famous Wimbledon tennis championship. Althea Gibson, recognized as the world’s best women’s tennis player of the time, was finally achieving her personal goals as an ambitious player. At the same time, she also broke down barriers around the world, becoming the first player of color to win the singles title at Wimbledon.

Center stands a tall African American woman, Althea Gibson, and in front of her is shorter white woman, the Queen of England, handing her a circular plate while a crowd watches in the background.

“Althea Scored Double, Misses Mixed Crown,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), July 7, 1957.

Upon her return home from Wimbeldon, a grand ticker tape parade was held in her honor in the streets of New York City. The Jackson Advocate* quoted the beaming Gibson speaking to the crowd, “This victory was won through the help of all your encouragement and your well wishes.”

Excerpt of a newspaper page showing a photograph of a woman sitting on a car turned to wave to a crowd lining a street. Visible headline text reads: Broadway Parade Honors.

“Broadway Parade Honors Tennis Queen,” Jackson Advocate (Jackson, MS), July 20, 1957.

Her extraordinary win at Wimbledon launched her to stardom and she was put on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time magazine.

Magazine cover showing Althea Gibson, a young African American woman, from the shoulders up, wearing a brown suit and white shirt, smiling. Visible text reads: Sports Illustrated.

Cover, Sports Illustrated, September 2, 1957. Retrieved from Sports Illustrated Vault online.

Then in August that year, Gibson broke down another barrier, becoming the first African American woman to win the U.S. National Championship. She played in front of President Dwight Eisenhower, and received her trophy from Vice President Richard Nixon.

Althea Gibson stands on the left accepting a round trophy from Vice President Richard Nixon with Mal Anderson on the right looking on.

“Words Can’t Express Feelings,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), September 9, 1957.

But these wins didn’t come easily. Gibson wasn’t allowed to play in the U.S. Nationals until she had competed at other major tournaments held by the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association. To compete in those, she had to be invited–invited to tournaments that had not allowed players of color to compete in the past.

Gibson began her tennis career with the African American-run American Tennis Association (ATA), winning her first women’s title in 1947. Her dominance at ATA tournaments was noticed by players of all races, and white players such as Alice Marble began lobbying for her inclusion in other national competitions. Gibson was denied entry at many tournaments held by the USLTA and similar organizations, until she was finally invited in 1950 to play in the Eastern Lawn Tennis Association Grass Court Championships in Orange, New Jersey. Although she didn’t win a title there, playing in the Championships got her a spot in the U.S. Nationals.

Excerpt of a newspaper article. Visible headline text reads: First to Compete in USLTA Meet.

“Miss Gibson Cracks Tennis Bars; Defeats her First Opponent: First to Compete in USLTA Meet,” Detroit Tribune (Detroit, MI), August 5, 1950.

On August 25, 1950, Althea Gibson became the first African American to play in the U.S. National Championship.  She was just finding her stride and gaining the advantage of her match when rain cut it short. When the game resumed, her opponent, Louise Brough, gained the upper hand and won.  Gibson’s career took many twists and turns after that as she worked in a variety of other places in addition to her tennis career. In 1955 she toured a variety of countries with the U.S. State Department as a representative of the country.

Despite multiple invitations to the U.S. National Championships and the opportunity to represent the U.S. abroad, Gibson still faced widespread racism and barriers. Time magazine noted in its August 26, 1957 article, “As a Negro, she is still only a tolerated stranger in Forest Hills locker rooms, still has no official standing in the U.S.L.T.A.”

Her fellow players offered her support, however. As Darlene Hard said, ““She’s the world’s champ—and doggone it, she’s earned it.”

Additional Resources:

Althea Gibson Points the Way,” Picture This: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs.

Althea Gibson Won Again!” America’s Story from America’s Library.

Althea Gibson,” International Tennis Hall of Fame.

* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Update: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Ms. Gibson was the first African American person to be featured on the cover of Time magazine.

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