Althea Gibson was born in Silver, South Carolina on August 25, 1927. The daughter of sharecroppers, Gibson was raised in Harlem, New York where her family moved when she was 3 years old. While playing tennis in local tournaments, she caught the attention of Dr. Walter Johnson, a Lynchburg, Virginia physician active in the African-American tennis community. Johnson became Althea's patron providing Gibson access to better instruction and competitions. He also introduced her to the United States Tennis Association (USTA), exposing her to the tennis scene.
Gibson was the first African-American to win championships at major tournaments, such as the French Open, Wimbledon, the United States Open, and the Australian Doubles in the 1950's. Though she was subjected to segregation, like many African-Americans at the time, she had an excellent amateur career as she blazed a trail across the tennis landscape.
In 1955, Gibson and her game was sponsored by the United States Lawn Tennis Association, which sent her around the world on a State Department tour that saw her compete in places like India, Burma, and Pakistan. At 5 feet 11 inches tall and possessing superb power and athletic skill, Gibson seemed destined for larger victories.
As an amateur, Gibson won 56 singles and doubles titles before gaining national and international acclaim for her athletic feats in professional tennis leagues. In the late 1950s, Gibson won eleven major titles including three straight doubles at the French Open in 1956, '57, and '58. She won the French Open in 1956, Wimbledon in 1957 and '58 and the U.S. Open in 1957 and '58.
Gibson was the first African-American to be named as the Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press in 1957. The following year, she was given the honor again. When she won her second U.S. Championship, she turned professional.
Gibson downplayed her role as a tennis pioneer. "I have never regarded myself as a crusader," she said in her 1958 autobiography, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody. Gibson was known for playing a set of matches before the famed Harlem Globetrotter basketball games that netted her a reported $100,000 one year.
In 1971, Gibson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, and in 1975, she was appointed the New Jersey State Commissioner of Athletics. She held this position for 10 years and also served on both the Governor's Council on Physical Fitness and the State's Athletics Control Board.
Althea Gibson passed away on September 28, 2003 at the age of 76. Gibson had a brilliant tennis career, and to her fans she was a special person and a pioneer in the black tennis community. Her experiences and successes paved the way for other great black tennis players like Arthur Ashe, Venus and Serena Williams.
The game of tennis is better off because it was touched by Althea Gibson.