Althea Gibson: Excellence Can Only be Denied for so Long

Deborah Hansen Contributor
Althea Gibson: Excellence Can Only be Denied for so Long
Read Time: approx. 4:01

Gibson receives a ticker tape parade upon returning to New York City (July 11, 1957)

Excellence can only be denied for so long. Althea Gibson made that clear as the first African-American pro tennis player to break through the color barrier. Although she stated that she never “consciously beat the drums for any cause, not even the negro in the United States,” her level of play managed to make waves for not only herself but for other players of color as well. Gibson’s story is also a testament to the importance of good role models and value-based adults in regards to a young person who needs direction and purpose.

Gibson started playing paddle-tennis as a child in the streets in Harlem. She disliked school, often choosing not to attend, and was once threatened with being sent to a home for delinquents. Gibson ultimately ended up winning several local championships in paddle-tennis, which led to a Police Athletic League (P.A.L.) supervisor Buddy Walker (who was also a musician and bandleader in New York) taking note and inviting her to play tennis on courts around the local area. He bought Althea two rackets and took her to the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club, a black tennis club on 149th Street. There she met and was coached by Fred Johnson, the one-armed club pro, who also introduced her to other club members who helped by buying her tennis clothes and lessons. They also coached her in tennis etiquette and helped her get her education back on track. In the early 1950’s she earned a full athletic scholarship to Florida A & M University in Tallahassee.

Queen Elizabeth II presents Gibson with the Venus Rosewater Dish at the 1957 Wimbledon women’s singles championships (July 6, 1957).

During the late 1940s and 50s, Gibson won numerous American Tennis Association championships, the association that sponsored and promoted African-American players. She was also the first African-American player to compete at Wimbledon and the US National Championships. Yet, even though the level of Gibson’s play was superior and the official rules of the United State Tennis Association prohibited racial or ethnic discrimination, she was not allowed to play in all-white clubs. Because of this, she could not earn points in order to compete in USTA-sanctioned events.

On July 1, 1950, former world number 1 tennis player, Alice Marble, published an open letter in the American Lawn Tennis magazine that took the leadership of the sport to task by stating “If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentlepeople and less like sanctimonious hypocrites. If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts.”

Gibson is congratulated by Darlene Hard after defeating her in the 1957 Wimbledon women’s singles championship. The pair were Wimbledon women’s doubles champions that same year.

The door swung open to Gibson as a result of Marble’s words. By 1952, Althea Gibson was ranked in the Top Ten of American tennis players by the USTA, ultimately reaching number 7 by 1953. Other victories quickly followed:

– The French Open in 1956

– Single Open titles in both 1957 and 1958

– Women’s singles and doubles at Wimbledon in 1957

– Fifty-six singles and doubles championships by 1959

– Turned pro in 1959, winning the singles title in 1960

Gibson retired in 1971 and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. And although she did not relish carrying the banner of achievement for African-American players, she thanked those who helped her along the way with these words upon a triumphant return to the US after winning Wimbledon:

“This victory belongs to you.”

Qualifying rounds for the 2019 US Open Tennis Championship began on August 19th in New York and there is no question that all the best players will be on the court, thanks to Althea Gibson.