Women’s History Month: The Legacy of Althea Gibson from FAMU To Tennis Immortality

Hailing from Silver, South Carolina in 1927, Althea Gibson grew up in Harlem, New York. After winning the New York City women’s paddle tennis championship at the age of 12, Gibson was introduced to tennis and displayed an elite grasp of the sport. 

She was taken under the wing of Dr. Walter Johnson in New York, who would later also mentor the great Arthur Ashe along his career path. Johnson was a star athlete at Lincoln University and went by the name “Whirlwind”, and even played football without a helmet.

In her early years, as she became more dominant in tennis. Johnson recognized her unlimited potential and introduced her to specialized tennis training — even set her up with the United States Tennis Association.

It was here that Gibson received a full scholarship to Florida A&M University in the 1950s and that changed her life.  At FAMU, she was under the tutelage of renowned coach Jake Gaither.

Heading South would offer her the first opportunity to play tennis in an integrated environment. On the flip side, things weren’t easy for her moving to the Deep South. The racial divide was even more obvious and strenuous than in Harlem, where she grew up on 143rd Street (between Lenox Avenue and Seventh Avenue) 

Her sophomore season didn’t go too well and she was summoned to meet with Gaither as the athletic department became worried because of her low performance. They totally missed the fact that she was a person in a new environment, where the racial tensions were venomous and her comfortability level — which was essential to her success — just wasn’t there.

Gaither told her to focus on what she could control and that was being the best player she could be. And a heartfelt pep talk was all she needed to pick her game up.

As her junior season approached Gibson would take off from there, excelling at tennis and golf. She was a natural athlete who could also dominate what they considered “the refined sports” at that segregated time. She would eventually become the first African-American woman to play on the LPGA Tour. Legend has it, she even used to dominate the fellas at the pool tables. 

Gibson was tall and statuesque which helped her to pursue modeling while in school. She pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha in the Beta Alpha undergraduate chapter.

Following graduation, with racism still extremely rampant, she was relegated to the American Tennis Association, an association specifically for African-Americans. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball in 1947 and in 1950 Gibson did the same as the first African-American player in the National Tennis Championship.

She would also be the first African-American woman invited to play at Wimbledon. Things began to really soar from here for Gibson.

She did the unthinkable in 1956, winning the singles titles in both the U.S. Open and French Open, becoming the first African-American woman to win what we now call “Grand Slam” tournaments. She followed those up with historic wins at Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958.

In her trailblazing career, Gibson won 56 singles and doubles titles. This included 11 singles Major Championships or Grand Slams. And three consecutive doubles titles at the French Open from 1956-58. Gibson also repeated as singles winner in the U.S. Open in 1957 and 1958.

For her efforts, she was named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year in 1957. That also was the first time a Black person won the award.

For that groundbreaking feat, she would be honored with covers on both the Sports Illustrated and Time Magazine. In 1958 she won the award again. Gibson is a trailblazer who paved the way for players like Venus and Serena Williams, and both have always paid homage to Gibson throughout their careers.

In fact, Venus becomes the first African-American to win Wimbledon since Gibson, while sister Serena would be the first to do the same at the U.S. Open.

During the time of Gibson’s dominance, money was not paid proportionately to women in sports and still isn’t, although the efforts of the great Billie Jean King, really fought to even the playing field a lot more. So Gibson had to find other ways to earn income. She became the opening entertainment at Harlem Globetrotter games, by playing tennis matches prior to the games.

She was her own brand before it became popular. However, Gibson did it out of necessity, not chasing clout or fame-seeking. It is believed that she earned over $100K per year doing so. She released an autobiography as well as music to show the other many gifts she possessed. Even starred along with John Wayne in a 1959 movie called “The Horse Soldiers.”

Gibson’s legacy stretches far and wide and she was finally honored with a statue at Arthur Ashe Stadium which is center court for the U.S. Open. The statue of the former FAMU Rattlers women’s great was unveiled on Equity Day in 2019.

A ceremony honoring her took place with the likes of Billie Jean King, Christiane Amanpour, Katrina Adams, Sloane Stephens, and former players Chanda Rubin, Zina Garrison, Angela Buxton and Leslie Allen in attendance.

The statue which is placed just outside of the iconic venue is a reminder of Gibson’s greatness and pays homage to one of the most important trailblazers in the history of the sport.

Gibson is a pioneer, the Jackie Robinson of tennis, and not just women’s tennis. Her efforts opened the door for Arthur Ashe, Venus, Serena and a host of other players. You can’t tell the story of tennis without Gibson’s name flowing throughout the veins of the game. 

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