This Harlem Native Rocked Roland Garros ... Back in 1956
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Althea Gibson broke barriers in both tennis and golf. So why don’t most fans know her name?
By Matt Foley
Three years after Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947, the world of tennis saw its own segregated traditionalism under siege. Thanks to a young woman from Harlem — a fierce competitor with a forehand forged on the Police Athletic League playgrounds — delaying integration was no longer feasible. Althea Gibson had arrived, ready to shake up the world of tennis.
So why has memory of her faded?
“I grew up hearing stories about Arthur Ashe and everything he represented for Black players, like myself,” says Frances Tiafoe, a 20-year-old Maryland native ranked 58th on the ATP tennis World Tour. “But it wasn’t until I got older that I even heard of [Gibson].”
I knew that I was an unusual, talented girl, through the grace of God.
Well before she became the first Black athlete to be invited to the U.S. National Championships (now U. S. Open) in 1950, it was evident Gibson was an effervescent talent. On the playground, golf course, stage or court, Gibson was a star. The 1939 New York City table tennis champion grew into a tennis phenom, becoming the first minority to with a Grand Slam title (the French Open,1956) before capturing U.S. National and Wimbledon trophies in both 1957 and 1958. She won 11 Grand Slam titles, then became the first Black woman on golf’s LPGA tour. By any definition, Gibson was a barrier-breaker — an iconic figure in the rich annals of a sport that reveres history. But, chances are, you’ve never heard of her.
When a teenage Arthur Ashe, who remains the only Black man to win singles titles at the U.S. Open, Wimbledon and the Australian Open, wanted to perfect his craft, he employed the help of Robert Walter Johnson, a physician and tennis trainer in Virginia. Johnson was known as the godfather of Black tennis for founding the American Tennis Association’s (ATA) Junior Development Program for African-American youths. Early on, his most successful pupil was an 18-year-old Althea Gibson.
In 1941, one year after picking up the sport, a 14-year old Gibson won her first tournament, the all-Black ATA New York State championships. She was runner-up in the 1946 championship, but her performance caught Johnson’s eye. According to a 1957 Time magazine profile entitled “The Gibson Girl,” Johnson asked the young star how she would “like to play at Forest Hills one day.”
“Don’t kid me,” she said, brushing off the notion that a Black girl would ever play in the U.S. Nationals at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, New York.
Four years later, she debuted at Forest Hills on her 23rd birthday. “I knew that I was an unusual, talented girl, through the grace of God,” she told Time. After years of lobbying by the ATA and retired tennis Hall of Famer Alice Marble, the U.S. Tennis Association invited Gibson and her unusual talents to the tournament. She lost in the second round, but her presence at the formerly white-only club was felt near and far. She played fast and hit hard, in an almost violent manner reminiscent of today’s stars. But, back then, her style was shockingly untraditional.
Gibson won her first international title in Jamaica in 1951. That same year she became the first Black athlete to play Wimbledon. But, in 1956, the nearly 30-year-old Gibson was still searching for a singles championship. The breakthrough came in Paris when she captured the 1956 French Open crown at the hallowed Roland Garros.
In the mid-20th century, though, peak athleticism did not last long for most athletes. Segregation nearly cost Gibson a chance to realize her potential. Nearly. The next year, she won singles titles at Wimbledon, the Australian Open and U.S. Nationals, before repeating her wins at Wimbledon and U.S. Nationals in 1958.
Gibson retired in 1958, owner of 56 national and international singles and doubles amateur titles. Prior to the open era, prize money was nonexistent and endorsement deals were minimal. “Being the Queen of Tennis is all well and good, but you can’t eat a crown,” she said at the time. “I reign over an empty bank account, and I’m not going to fill it by playing amateur tennis.”
A talented vocalist, Gibson appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show to promote an album in 1957, but sales were disappointing. She worked as an actress, comedian and sports broadcaster, and published a memoir in 1960.
Then, of course, she did what she did best: flipped another whitewashed sport on its head. In 1964, a 37-year-old Gibson became the first Black woman to play on golf’s LPGA tour, but she still faced years of discrimination from clubs that refused her presence.
Today, sports fans of a certain age know only a reality in which two of the greatest tennis players ever — Serena and Venus Williams — are Black. But it was another 15 years after Gibson’s triumphs before another woman of color — Australian Evonne Goolagong, in 1971 — won a Grand Slam title, and 43 years before Serena won her first of six U.S. Opens, in 1999. Venus won the next two, imitating Gibson’s repeat feat decades earlier. Before that 1999 title, Serena penned Gibson a letter, thanking her for paving the way.
In February, the USTA announced plans to erect a memorial statue of Gibson — who passed away in 2003 — at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, home of the Open and mere miles from Forest Hills Stadium. It won’t be ready for this year’s tournament in August, but soon a day will come when fans invade the grounds for America’s most famous tennis tournament, sipping honey deuce cocktails and ready to cheer on the chosen few. Maybe, as fans are prone to do, they’ll stop to admire the giant bronze statue before filing into tiers of seats. At that moment, tennis will have finally paid Althea Gibson her due.