Tennis champion. Gibson was born in Silver (Clarendon County) on August 25, 1927, the daughter of sharecroppers Daniel and Annie Gibson. The family moved to New York when Althea was three years old. Gibson spent her childhood cutting school and playing sports. She excelled at paddle tennis and caught the attention of Buddy Walker, a Police Athletic League supervisor, who suggested she try regular tennis. Walker took Gibson to practice at the Harlem River Tennis Courts and within days she was beating local male players.
Gibson’s success led to membership in New York’s most prestigious black tennis club, the Cosmopolitan. Gibson began formal lessons after a year and steadily improved. She won in her first tournament, the all-black American Tennis Association’s (ATA) New York State Open Championship. In 1946 Gibson advanced from the ATA’s girls’ division to the women’s division. She lost her first championship match at this level, but two ATA officials, Dr. Hubert Eaton and Dr. Robert Johnson, recognized Gibson’s potential and offered to help her with her college education. Gibson, however, had dropped out of high school, so the three struck a deal. During the school year, Gibson would live with Eaton, attend high school, and practice on his private court. During the summers she would live with Johnson and play the ATA circuit. Gibson dominated the ATA. In 1947 she won the first of ten consecutive ATA national championships. With the help of ATA officials, she finally got her first invitation to an event sponsored by the all-white United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA). In 1949 Gibson competed in the Eastern Indoor Championships, reaching the quarterfinals. Gibson did not, however, receive an invitation to play in the outdoor tournaments until another player, Alice Marble, wrote a scathing article against racial discrimination. On August 28, 1950, in Forest Hills, New York, Gibson became the first African American to play in the USLTA championship. Gibson lost in the second round to Wimbledon champion Louise Brough, but her performance ensured her return.
Gibson continued to play nationally and internationally. In 1956 she won sixteen of the eighteen tournaments she entered. That same year she became the first African American to capture a Grand Slam event when she won the French Championship. She went on to win Wimbledon in 1957 and was welcomed home with a ticker tape parade. Ranked as the number one tennis player in 1957, Gibson won her first U.S. championship and was named Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press.
In 1958 Gibson remained number one, successfully defending her Wimbledon and U.S. titles and receiving the Associated Press’s Female Athlete of the Year award for a second year. Gibson retired from amateur tennis in 1959 and began playing golf in the early 1960s. She broke the color barrier again when, in 1964, she was the first African American to earn a LPGA player’s card. In 1971 Gibson began coaching tennis. She coached until 1992 when she retired. After several years of declining health, Gibson died on September 28, 2003, in East Orange, New Jersey.
Biracree, Tom. Althea Gibson. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. Gibson, Althea. I Always Wanted to Be Somebody. New York: Harper, 1958. ———. So Much to Live For. New York: Putnam, 1968. Woodlum, Janet. Outstanding Women Athletes: Who They Are and How They Influenced Sports in America. 2d ed. Phoenix: Oryx, 1998.