First Black Tennis Player Althea Gibson Honored at U.S. Open

Althea Gibson

By Ron Wynn

Long before the exploits of Arthur Ashe or the Williams sisters, Althea Gibson was achieving historic results in the previously all-white world of professional tennis. The 1957-58 AP Female Athlete of the Year, Gibson, a Florida A&M graduate, won the 1956 French Open, and both the U.S. Nationals (now the Open) and Wimbledon in 1957-58. She was the first Black player (either man or woman) to win a major title, and she  won more than 50 singles and doubles titles before retiring from tennis in 1958 while still holding the number one ranking.

Gibson subsequently became a pioneer in golf, becoming the LPGA’s first full-time Black golfer in 1964. She later became state commissioner of athletics in New Jersey, and had quite a career in athletics administration until 1992. Gibson passed in 2003, and for many years lots of people inside and outside tennis wondered why there was no official recognition of someone whose accomplishments also included winning 11 major titles, especially considering that Ashe had a stadium named for him at that same U.S. Open.

But that’s now changed. The United Sates Tennis Association (USTA) unveiled a statue in her honor Monday as this year’s U.S. Open began. Participants in the One Love Tennis program, an athletic and educational program for youth in Wilmington, North Carolina (Gibson was born in Silver, South Carolina, but mostly grew up in Harlem) attended the ceremony. It’s the culmination of a campaign led by the Althea Gibson Foundation and propelled through the efforts of such supporters as her former doubles partner Angela Buxton of Britain, with whom she won the 1956 French and Wimbledon doubles titles, plus former U.S. Tennis Association President Katrina Adams, Frances Gray, co-founder of the Gibson Foundation, and current One Love program director Lenny Simpson.

“She’s our Jackie Robinson of tennis,” Billie Jean King told the Associated Press. King saw Gibson play as a 13-year-old. “I saw what it meant to be the best.” Gibson was trained on the same courts in Lynchburg, Virginia where Ashe learned the game by the identical teacher, the late Dr. Robert Walter Johnson. It took a lobbying campaign by the ATA and an editorial from former champion Alice Marble to get Gibson into the 1950 U.S. Nationals at Forest Hills. 

After a few years of struggle, she teamed with Buxton and the rest is history. Despite winning the 1957 and 1958 Wimbledon titles, both Gibson and Buxton were denied entrance into the All England Club. Gibson was later admitted but Buxton still hasn’t been, even today. No other Black woman won either the U.S. Open or Wimbledon until Serena Williams won the Open in 1999, and Venus Williams Wimbledon in 2000.