Looking Back on Althea Gibson

Fri, 02/23/2018 - 1:46pm -- mfarias

On this last week of Black History Month, we pay tribute to an African-American athlete and trailblazer who is immortalized just down the road from the Redwood Library at the International Tennis Hall of Fame: Althea Gibson (1927-2003).


Althea Gibson, 1958 by Carl Van Vechten
Richard Banks Collection of Carl Van Vechten Photographs
Redwood Library & Athenaeum


Born in Silver South Carolina to Daniel and Annie Bell Gibson, who worked as sharecroppers, the family moved to Harlem, New York in 1930 where Gibson got her first taste of the sport through table tennis. In 1939, at the age of 12, Althea Gibson was New York City’s women’s paddle tennis champion. Gibson was a rebellious teenager who dropped out of school at 14 and ended up becoming a ward of the state. It was then that she was introduced to tennis by a recreation department worker who recognized her talent. She was invited to become a junior member of the tennis club of the interracial New York Cosmopolitan Club whose members were impressed with her skill on the court. They arranged for her to have lessons with the club’s resident professional and after just one year, she entered and won her first tournament, the American Tennis Association’s New York State Open in 1941.


Althea Gibson, 1958 by Carl Van Vechten
Richard Banks Collection of Carl Van Vechten Photographs
Redwood Library & Athenaeum


By 1945, Gibson had won her first National Negro Girls’ Championship title and drew the attention of Dr. Hubert A. Eaton (1916-1991) and Dr. Robert Walter Johnson (1899-1971). Eaton and Johnson offered to support Gibson’s training if she would complete high school and with their support, Gibson earned her degree and won nine consecutive Negro National Championship victories. Dr. Johnson was himself inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2009 as a contributor for his mentorship of African-American greats Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe (1943-1993) and other lesser-known, but critical athletes working to break racial barriers in sports. Dr. Johnson is remembered as the “godfather” of black tennis and his mentorship of Gibson allowed her the space to prove her talent.


Althea Gibson & Dr. Hubert Eaton, credit: MyReporter


Althea Gibson & Dr. Robert Johnson, credit: Amsterdam News

 

Gibson was encouraged to compete in the major tennis tournaments but was denied entry because they were open to whites only. After a public outcry made headlines in the media, African-American players were allowed to enter many major tournaments. Gibson became the first black player to compete in the United States Open in 1950, to play at Wimbledon, England in 1951, and to win both singles and doubles at Wimbledon in 1957. The same year, Gibson won the U.S. women’s singles competition at Forest Hills, New York. In 1958, she repeated her round of victories and reestablished her dominance in the sport.

 

Tennis Hall of Fame and Museum, 1960 by Unknown
James H. and Candace Van Alen Papers
Redwood Library & Athenaeum

 

James Van Alen Snapshot, ca. 1960s by Unknown
James H. and Candace Van Alen Papers
Redwood Library & Athenaeum


Even as the clear champion of women’s tennis, Gibson was not able to make enough money from the sport to support herself. She retired and turned her attention to golf, becoming the first black women to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association, although she did not reach the same levels of success as she had in tennis. When she retired from professional athletics, she focused her attention on developing sports programs in her adopted home state of New Jersey. In 1971, she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, located at the old Newport Casino and founded by James Van Alen (1902-1991), whose papers reside at the Redwood Library.

 

Althea Gibson, 1958 by Carl Van Vechten
Richard Banks Collection of Carl Van Vechten Photographs
Redwood Library & Athenaeum

 

Althea Gibson’s talent and drive to succeed ensured her a place in tennis history, but the racial segregation that tried to keep her out of the sport contributed to her inability to earn enough sponsorship money to support herself as a professional. After she retired, it was more than 40 years before another African American woman won a major singles title, with Serena Williams’ 1999 US Open victory. Prejudiced systems do their best to resist change, but women like Althea Gibson and Serena Williams will continue to lead the way towards equality on and off the court.


Althea Gibson, 1958 by Carl Van Vechten
Richard Banks Collection of Carl Van Vechten Photographs
Redwood Library & Athenaeum