Black History Month: Althea Gibson

The sociological and historical significance of August 25, 1950 was enormous for African-Americans in their pursuit of breaking down color lines and paving the way for equal opportunities as Althea Gibson became the first African-American to compete at the U.S. National Championships. Gibson’s inclusion in America’s biggest tennis event wasn’t just about gaining acceptance in the sporting world, but seen as a momentum builder for blacks in the game of life. 

What Jackie Robinson did for baseball by being in the Brooklyn Dodgers’s starting lineup at first base on April 15, 1947, Althea Gibson did for tennis when she made her historic debut, defeating Barbara Knapp, 6-2, 6-2, in the first round.Gibson had a jam-packed eight-year career, with all of her major championships coming from 1956 to 1958, when she appeared in a stunning 19 major finals and won 11 titles. Five were in singles: the French in 1956, Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958, and the U.S. Nationals in 1957 and 1958; five in women’s doubles: the French 1956, the Australian in 1957, Wimbledon in 1956, 1957, 1958 and one in mixed doubles, at the U.S. in 1957. After that remarkable run of accomplishment, Gibson became the first African-American to compete on the women’s professional golf tour in 1960. 

The sociological and historical significance of August 25, 1950 was enormous for African-Americans in their pursuit of breaking down color lines and paving the way for equal opportunities as Althea Gibson became the first African-American to compete at the U.S. National Championships. Gibson’s inclusion in America’s biggest tennis event wasn’t just about gaining acceptance in the sporting world, but seen as a momentum builder for blacks in the game of life. What Jackie Robinson did for baseball by being in the Brooklyn Dodgers’s starting lineup at first base on April 15, 1947, Althea Gibson did for tennis when she made her historic debut, defeating Barbara Knapp, 6-2, 6-2, in the first round.


Gibson had a jam-packed eight-year career, with all of her major championships coming from 1956 to 1958, when she appeared in a stunning 19 major finals and won 11 titles. Five were in singles: the French in 1956, Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958, and the U.S. Nationals in 1957 and 1958; five in women’s doubles: the French 1956, the Australian in 1957, Wimbledon in 1956, 1957, 1958 and one in mixed doubles, at the U.S. in 1957. After that remarkable run of accomplishment, Gibson became the first African-American to compete on the women’s professional golf tour in 1960.

Until Evonne Goolagong Cawley, who was from an Australian Aboriginal family, won the French Open and Wimbledon Ladies Singles Championship in 1971, Gibson held the distinction of being the only woman of color to win a major championship for 15 years. It took 43 years, when Serena Williams won the 1999 US Open, for another African-American female to win a major singles title.

Hailing from the small, rural town of Silver, S.C., the Gibson family moved north in search of a brighter life and stronger financial future, settling in Harlem in 1930. Few could predict that 20 years later Gibson would become the first African-American to grace the August 26, 1957 cover of Time Magazine and September 2, 1957 cover of Sports Illustrated.  
Source: International Tennis Hall of Fame

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