Althea Gibson shied away from the idea of being a civil rights activist, but she nonetheless made history when she broke through racial barriers in athletics. Gibson was the first Black athlete to win a Grand Slam tennis event, then became the first Black woman to compete in the LPGA, the women’s professional golf league—two sports long associated with exclusionary country clubs and cultural elitism. Gibson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2001. Here are some key facts about this groundbreaking athlete.
August 25, 1927, Silver, South Carolina
September 28, 2003, East Orange, New Jersey
1. Althea Gibson’s first sport was ping-pong.
Born on August 25, 1927, in South Carolina to parents who worked as sharecroppers, Gibson was 3 when her family migrated to Harlem in New York City. By chance, they moved into a building on a “play street”—a designation that allowed the street to be closed to traffic each afternoon to give children a place to run around. The city’s Police Athletic League would then set up ping-pong equipment in front of Gibson’s building. She started playing at age 9 and quickly climbed the ranks in local ping-pong tournaments, winning a city championship at 12.
2. Gibson won second place in a singing competition at The Apollo.
In addition to playing a variety of sports as a teenager, Gibson dreamed of a career in music as a singer and saxophone player. (Championship boxer Sugar Ray Robinson bought her a saxophone after she introduced herself to him in a bowling alley.) According to her autobiography, she would skip school to attend performances at the famous Apollo Theater and eventually took second place in a singing contest there in 1943. The theater initially offered a week-long concert engagement but reneged and gave her a prize of $10 instead.
3. She honed her skills at a Black tennis club in Harlem.
Her ping-pong prowess and natural athletic talent caught the attention of musician and Police Athletic League supervisor Buddy Walker, who encouraged her to try tennis and brought her to the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club. The club primarily served Black members, who were also not permitted to compete in the segregated competitive tennis circuit. There, she learned the game and gained support from the Black tennis community.
In the mid-1940s, Gibson won a couple of junior championships in the American Tennis Association, a league formed to promote tournaments for Black players. Two members of the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club, North Carolina doctor Hubert A. Eaton and Virginia physician R. Walter Johnson, recognized her talent and became Gibson’s sponsors to help her rise in the ranks of the ATA’s women’s division. Gibson moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, to live with Eaton and his wife and to finish high school—she had dropped out in Harlem—and she spent summers with Johnson, playing tennis on the ATA circuit.
4. She needed an invitation to compete at higher levels.
From 1947 to 1956, she won 10 straight championship titles on the ATA circuit, but when she when she attempted to play in higher-tier United States Lawn Tennis Association events, Gibson encountered obstacles that had nothing to do with her playing ability.
She won the 1950 Eastern Indoor Championship but couldn’t play in the National Grass Court Championships (now known as the U.S. Open) because she hadn’t qualified by playing in any grass court events—which required invitations that Gibson didn’t receive. Alice Marble, a top player at the time, accused the association of effectively excluding Gibson from white-dominated tournaments in American Lawn Tennis magazine [PDF].
“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,” Marble wrote. “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, where tennis is played … [Gibson] might be soundly beaten for a while—but she has a much better chance on the courts than in the inner sanctum of the committee, where a different kind of game is played.”
5. Gibson was the first Black player to compete in the U.S. National Tennis Championships.
Gibson eventually received that necessary invite to the Eastern Grass Court Championships in 1950. She placed high enough to earn a spot at that year’s national tennis championship at Forest Hills, becoming the first Black player to compete in the tournament on her 23rd birthday. She beat her first-round opponent but lost her second-round match after it was interrupted by a torrential downpour.
6. Gibson won 11 Grand Slam titles between 1956 and 1958.
She won five major titles in singles, five in women’s doubles, and one in mixed doubles. Her first wins were in 1956 at the French Open, in singles and doubles, and at Wimbledon in doubles, becoming the first Black player to do so at each tournament. Those victories were followed by the Australian Open (doubles), Wimbledon (singles and doubles) and the U.S. Open (singles and mixed doubles) in 1957; and the U.S. Open (singles) and Wimbledon (singles and doubles) in 1958. She was also a member of the U.S. team that won the Wightman Cup, an annual women’s tennis tournament between the U.S. and Great Britain, in 1957. Her dominance on the court earned her cover stories in Sports Illustrated and TIME, and yet again, she was the first Black woman so honored.
7. Gibson received a ticker tape parade.
Following her singles win at Wimbledon, her hometown of New York City threw her a ticker tape parade on July 11, 1957. Thousands of spectators lined the parade route from the Battery to City Hall to see her as she rode on an open-top Chrysler limousine. Afterwards, Mayor Robert Wagner hosted a luncheon in her honor at the Waldorf-Astoria, where the menu included chilled Vichyssoise, roast lamb, garden vegetables, and “pineapple surprise dessert.”
8. She was the world’s top-ranked tennis player in 1957—but could barely make a living.
During Gibson’s playing days, the major tennis tournaments were all amateur events, and cash prizes were not allowed. (Professional players toured in barnstorming events in which they were paid by sponsors to appear; the pro events held no cachet and garnered barely any publicity.) Major tennis tournaments did not open to professionals until 1968, ushering in what is deemed the Open era, when professionals and amateurs alike could compete in the same events.
Because her heyday preceded the Open era, Gibson made almost no money from her championships. Gibson attempted a comeback when tennis went pro in 1968, but found she couldn’t compete with the younger players.
9. She played tennis at Harlem Globetrotter games, acted, and sang to make money …
She also recorded an album called Althea Gibson Sings, performing two of its songs on The Ed Sullivan Show; played an enslaved woman in The Horse Soldiers, a Civil War drama directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne and William Holden; and published a memoir, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody.
10. … And she competed in professional golf tournaments.
Gibson turned to professional golf to make a living, training at the Englewood Golf Club in New Jersey (where, again, she was the first Black member.) She joined the LPGA tour in 1963 started in 171 tournaments between 1963 and 1977. Although she competed at the pro level, she didn’t earn much.
11. Gibson was appointed as the first woman state athletic commissioner.
12. The street where Gibson grew up is named in her honor.
After several years in poor health, Gibson passed away on September 28, 2003, of respiratory failure. Roughly two decades later, West 143rd Street in Harlem was renamed Althea Gibson Way. The ceremony took place on what would have been Gibson’s 95th birthday.