From the ghetto to the tennis court, Althea Gibson’s story is pure sheroism. At a time when tennis was not only dominated by whites but upper-class whites at that, she managed to serve and volley her way to the top.
Born in 1927 to a Southern sharecropper family, Althea struggled as a girl with a restless energy that took years for her to channel into positive accomplishments. The family’s move to Harlem didn’t help. She was bored by school and skipped a lot; teachers and truant officers predicted the worst for Althea, believing that she was a walking attitude problem whose future lay as far as the nearest reform school.
Although things looked dire for Althea, she had a thing or two to show the naysayers. Like many sheroes, Althea had to bottom out before she could get to the top. She dropped out of school and drifted from job to job until, at only fourteen, she found herself a ward of New York City’s Welfare Department. This turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to Althea—a wise welfare worker not only helped her find steady work, but also enrolled her into New York’s police sports program. Althea fell in love with paddle ball and, upon graduating to real tennis, amazed everyone with her natural ability. The New York Cosmopolitan Club, an interracial sports and social organization, sponsored the teen and arranged for her to have a tennis coach, Fred Johnson. Althea’s transformation from “bad girl” to tennis sensation was immediate; she won the New York State Open Championship one year later. She captured the attention of two wealthy patrons who agreed to sponsor her if she finished high school. She did in 1949 and went on to accept a tennis scholarship to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University.
Althea’s battles weren’t over yet, though. She aced nine straight Negro national championships and chafed at the exclusion from tournaments closed to nonwhite players. Fighting hard to compete with white players, Althea handled herself well, despite being exposed to racism at its most heinous. Her dignified struggle to overcome segregation in tennis won her many supporters of all colors. Finally, one of her biggest fans and admirers, the editor of American Lawn and Tennis magazine, wrote an article decrying the “color barrier” in tennis. The walls came down. By 1958, Althea Gibson won the singles and doubles at Wimbledon and twice took the US national championships at the US Open as well.
Then, citing money woes, she retired; she just couldn’t make a living at women’s tennis. Like Babe Zaharias, she took up golf, becoming the first black woman to qualify for the LPGA. But she never excelled in golf as she had in tennis, and, in the seventies and eighties, she returned to the game she truly loved, serving as a mentor and coach to an up-and-coming generation of African American women tennis players.
Through sheer excellence and a willingness to work on behalf of her race, Althea Gibson made a huge difference in the world of sports, for which we are all indebted to her.