Encyclopedia Womannica

Explorers & Contenders: Althea Gibson

Episode Summary

Althea Gibson (1927-2003) was the first person to cross the color line in international tennis at a time when racial prejudice and discrimination were still accepted, if not specifically codified. Often compared to Jackie Robinson, she broke down barriers and dominated women’s tennis in the late 1950s. After retiring from tennis, she also became the first African American woman to compete in the LPGA.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

Follow Wonder Media Network:

Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s contender was the first person to cross the color line in international tennis at a time when racial prejudice and discrimination were still accepted, if not specifically codified. Often compared to Jackie Robinson, she broke down barriers and dominated women’s tennis in the late 1950s. After retiring from tennis, she also became the first African American woman to compete in the LPGA. Let’s talk about Althea Gibson.

Althea was born on August 25, 1927 in the small town of Silver, South Carolina. Her parents worked as sharecroppers on a cotton farm. 

The Great Depression hit Southern farming particularly early and hard, so in 1930 Althea’s family moved north to Harlem, New York in the hopes of making better lives for themselves.  

From an early age Althea excelled at sports and most physical activities. After the move to Harlem, she learned to play paddle tennis, a game derived from tennis but played on a smaller court with solid paddles and a different type of ball. By the age of 12, Althea was already New York City’s women’s paddle ball champion.

In 1940, 13-year-old Althea quit school and spent most of her days playing basketball and going to the movies. Due to her father’s violent behavior, she also spent time living in a shelter for abused children.

That same year, Althea’s neighbors started a fundraising campaign to purchase tennis lessons for her at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club. Though Althea didn’t love tennis at first, she was a natural. By 1941, just a year after starting lessons, Althea won the American Tennis Association New York State Championship. The American Tennis association, or ATA, was the African-American equivalent to the United States Lawn Tennis Association, the premier tennis organization in the United States now known as the USTA.

Starting in 1947, Althea went on to win a whopping ten straight ATA national women’s championships. This drew the attention of tennis fans across the country. Under the patronage of a couple of doctors who were heavily involved in the African American tennis community, Althea was soon taking advanced lessons with better coaches and playing in bigger and more difficult tournaments. 

In 1949, Althea became the first black female athlete to compete in the USTA’s National Indoor Championships. She made it to  the quarterfinals. That same year, she enrolled at Florida A&M University on a full athletic scholarship. 

Despite her great success and general recognition of her extraordinary skill, Althea still faced a major obstacle in pushing her tennis career forward. The USTA rules officially prohibited racial discrimination, but the way players qualified for the major National tournaments was by playing in smaller sanctioned tournaments throughout the year to accumulate points. Most of these sanctioned tournaments were held at all-white clubs where Althea was not allowed to compete. 

Starting in 1950, major tennis players and important members of the larger tennis community began lobbying for Althea’s inclusion in the United States National Championships regardless of her accumulated tournament points. One of Althea’s biggest supporters was four-time U.S. National singles champion Alice Marble. Alice wrote an open letter in the popular American Lawn Tennis magazine saying, “If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of players, then it’s only fair that they meet this challenge on the courts.”

As a result of the lobbying campaign, Althea became the first black tennis player to receive an invitation to the National Championships in 1950. Though she lost a close match in the second round to the reigning Wimbledon champion, Althea received significant media coverage for her groundbreaking play. As journalist Lester Rodney noted in his coverage, “In many ways, it is even a tougher personal Jim Crow-busting assignment than was Jackie Robinson's when he first stepped out of the Brooklyn Dodgers dugout.”

The next year Althea earned her first international title after winning the Caribbean Championships. In July 1951, she became the first African American to play at Wimbledon, where she lost in the third round.

From 1951-1956, Althea won quite a few singles tournaments, but it wasn’t until her stunning victory in the 1956 French Championships that she won her first major Grand Slam, making headlines around the world. She actually won the singles and doubles championship in Paris. From that point on, Althea was nearly unstoppable. 

In 1957, Althea, playing as the #1 seed, became the first African American to win the Wimbledon Ladies Singles Championship, and the first black champion in the history of Wimbledon. She also won the Wimbledon Ladies Doubles Championship. 

A massive ticker-tape parade was held for Althea upon her return to New York City, making her only the second African American after Jesse Owens to receive such an honor. In the New York Times, renowned tennis journalist Allison Danzig wrote, “The girl who was playing paddle tennis on the streets of Harlem some fifteen years ago, found herself, at the age of 30, at the pinnacle of tennisdom.” A few months later, Althea won the U.S. National Women’s Singles championship as well. 

The following year, Althea once again won Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals in both singles and doubles. By the end of the 1958 season, Althea had won 58 combined singles and doubles titles, was named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year two years in a row, and was the #1 ranked woman tennis player in the world. 

Following two extraordinary years of tennis, Althea decided to retire from international play and turn professional. During this period, there was no prize money at major tennis tournaments, which were considered events for amateurs, and endorsement deals were strictly prohibited. 

Unfortunately there was little money to be made in women’s professional tennis in those days so in 1964, at the age of 37, Althea switched sports. She became the first African American woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour, or LPGA. 

Althea wasn’t nearly as dominant at golf as she was at tennis, and she faced significant racial discrimination in terms of  which courses she was allowed to play on. Still, she was still one of the LPGA’s top 50 money winners for 5 years. Many observers believed that Althea could have been a game-changing golf player as well if she had picked it up at a younger age. 

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Althea suffered two cerebral hemorrhages and a stroke. Althea’s medical bills piled up until  her savings were gone and she couldn’t afford her rent or medications. When the tennis community learned of her situation, nearly $1 million in donations were raised from her supporters around the world.

In 2003, Althea suffered a heart attack. She survived, but died from related complications a few months later. She was 76 years old. 

All month, we’re talking about Explorers and Contenders. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter, Womannica Weekly. 

You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!