Althea Gibson’s life and achievements transcend sports. A truant from the rough streets of Harlem, Althea emerged as a most unlikely queen of the highly segregated tennis world in the 1950s. Her roots as a sharecropper’s daughter, her family’s migration north to Harlem in the 1930s, mentoring from Sugar Ray Robinson, David Dinkins and others, and fame that thrust her unwillingly into the glare of the early Civil Rights movement, all bring her story into a much broader realm of the American story.
No player, not even the great Arthur Ashe (who came a decade after Althea), overcame more obstacles to become a champion than Althea Gibson; the first African-American to play at (and win) Wimbledon and the US Open was a woman. She was celebrated by ticker-tape parades in New York City, twice, to welcome her home after hard-fought victories. There was no professional tennis circuit for women in her era, so her options were limited. As Althea said, “You can’t eat a crown.” When she the #1 player in the world, she still could not afford her own apartment, and became constantly indebted to her benefactors.
Forced from the game to make a living, Althea later brought her talents to golf, breaking another color barrier: the LPGA, where she competed for over 10 years. She retired from competitive tennis and played exhibitions on tour with the Harlem Globetrotters, became a recorded Jazz singer, performing on the Ed Sullivan Show and “What’s My Line, ” and landed a role in a John Wayne/John Ford film.
Late in life, forgotten by the “Tennis Establishment” and barely able to make ends meet, she became reclusive, enveloped by bitterness and resentment towards those she saw reaping million-dollar paydays. On her last trip to the US Open, she went unrecognized. She was extremely proud, didn’t want to ask for help, and wound up isolated.
Throughout her entire journey, Althea remained true to her convictions – an uncompromising individual and unique trailblazer.