Althea Gibson’s life and achievements transcend sports and are part of the annals of African-American history. From her roots as a sharecropper’s daughter in the South Carolina cotton fields, to her rise as the unlikely queen of the highly segregated tennis world in the 1950s, her story is a complex one of race, class, and gender.
people often cite arthur ashe as the first african american to win wimbledon (1975). In fact, he was the first African-American man to win the men’s singles title, but it was, in fact, Althea Gibson, who was the first African-American to cross the color line playing and winning at Wimbledon (1957 and 1958) and in the USA. . uu. Nationals (1957 and 1958 – precursor to the U.S. Open).
gibson was born in silver, south carolina on august 25, 1927. at the age of three, his father moved the family north and they immigrated to harlem in 1930. gibson was a tomboy who grew up loving sports , but that he disliked school so much that he began skipping classes at the age of 12, and by 18, he had dropped out of high school. she played basketball, but “…padel started it all,” says gibson, in a clip from a 1984 interview.
She learned to play the sport on the streets, but it was gang leader Buddy Walker, who was also the neighborhood street manager, who introduced her to tennis and the Cosmopolitan Club, a private black tennis club . at the club she met fred johnson, the one-armed coach, who taught her how to play. Under the auspices of the American Tennis Association (ATA), an organization for African-American players, she began to develop as a tennis player. It was during this time that she met boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, who would become a friend and mentor to her.
Though a talented tennis player, Gibson was a street kid who lacked the gentle manners associated with the sport. he was under the tutelage of dr. hubert eaton of wilmington, nc and dr. Robert W. johnson from lynchburg, va, two african american doctors who loved tennis and helped young african americans who wanted to play, that she flourished. she honed her skill while taking etiquette and social courtesy lessons, traveling and gambling in the segregated South and even earning her high school degree. Her success in tennis earned her an athletic scholarship (basketball and tennis) to Florida A&M, where she received a bachelor’s degree in 1955 at the age of 27. however, despite all that she accomplished, she never felt comfortable with the black middle class.
gibson’s first appearance in the u.s. Nationals in 1950 is an extraordinary and dramatic story. her triumphant return seven years later to win the u.s. Nationals in 1957 and then again in 1958 she has been credited to her trainer at the time, Sydney Llewellyn (her second husband of hers). In 1957 and 1958, Gibson was at the peak of her career, winning major tournaments, including the prestigious Wimbledon. Although he is now a world champion, Gibson could not make a living playing amateur tennis. In 1959, he turned professional, touring with the Harlem Globetrotters and playing paid exhibition games. Branching out into other areas, he recorded a jazz album for Dot Records, appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, and even landed a role in a John Wayne/John Ford film, Horse Soldiers (1959), in the 1960s. , took up golf and in 1964 became the first African-American woman to become a member of the lpga (ladies professional golf association).
in 1965 she married the love of her life, william darben. Althea’s doubles partner and friend Angela Buxton and Darben’s niece Sandra Terry speak fondly of their relationship, although Gibson and Darben’s marriage ended in 1975. Gibson would remarry in 1983 to former coach Llewellyn. Art Carrington, a former professional player, tennis historian, and friend of Athea’s, recalls that she married Llewellyn because she was invited to take her spouse on a tour of former champions. Buxton shares that they were just really good friends and that Gibson felt that Llewellyn had done a lot for her. five years later, this marriage also ended in divorce. Gibson and Darben remained close, reuniting towards the end of her life.
By 1968, Gibson had stopped competing and for a time worked as a professional tennis teacher. In the years that followed, Gibson found it difficult to make ends meet. Was his failure to achieve financial success partly his doing? As depicted in the film, Ella Gibson is overwhelmed when she is turned away, unrecognized and unwelcomed, at a hotel restaurant in U.S. open championship day.
Depressed and impoverished, in 1996, Gibson called Buxton to say goodbye. In a generous outpouring of financial support, orchestrated by Buxton, the tennis community showed Gibson that she was not forgotten. Gibson died on September 28, 2003. He was 76 years old.
Although Gibson’s accomplishments placed her at the forefront of the fight to desegregate tennis and achieve equal rights for players, she was a reluctant figure in the civil rights movement. “As far as althea was concerned, it wasn’t about representing race,” says arvelia myers, a friend of althea’s and a professional tennis player. says billie jean king, “arthur and i used our sneakers as a platform, that’s not what she wanted. she just wanted to play.”
“Gibson’s athletic prowess was unmatched on the tennis court, making her a formidable competitor,” says Michael Kantor, American Masters executive producer and tennis enthusiast. “Their story of her remains an important part of not only sports history and African-American history, but American cultural history as well.