August 25, 1927-September 28, 2003
In 1950, Althea Gibson became the first athlete to break the color barrier in international tennis. Six years later she won the French Open championship, becoming the first person of color to win a Grand Slam title. In 1957, Gibson won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals (the precursor to the U.S. Open), a feat she repeated in 1958. She was the number-one-ranked female player in the world and in the United States in both 1957 and 1958, and was named Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press in both years. For her career she won 56 national and international titles, including 11 Grand Slam titles. During this era, however, tennis was an amateur sport, so any income she earned was largely limited to expense allowances. Following her U.S. Nationals victory in 1958, Gibson turned pro, but there were few tournaments and prizes for women, and even fewer invitations for Gibson to compete. A few years after turning pro, Gibson retired from tennis.
Following her retirement Gibson, who was an accomplished jazz singer, saxophonist and actress, recorded an album and appeared with John Wayne in the movie Horse Soldiers.
In the early 1960s Gibson turned her attention to professional golf and in 1962 she became the first black player to compete in the Ladies Professional Golf Association. Her highest ranking was 27th and by the time she retired in 1978, her total golf earnings were less than $25,000.
Throughout her career in sports, Gibson faced discrimination and segregation and was often compared to Jackie Robinson as a pioneer who crossed the color line in professional tennis and golf. Despite her role as a trailblazer and a dominate force in tennis, Gibson never received financial rewards nor the acclaim that many, till this day, believe she deserved.
Following her retirement from sports Gibson took a number of jobs in local government in New Jersey. In the late 1980s she was beset with a series of illnesses that depleted her financial resources. Tennis great Billie Jean King, who considered Gibson her role model and “she-ro,” was among those who donated money to help Gibson’s cause. In September 2003, Gibson passed away at the age of 76 in East Orange, NJ.
Though unknown to many, true fans of tennis and of sport recognize Althea Gibson as one of the greatest tennis players of all time who paved the way for many of today’s top stars.