Today in 1950, the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) permitted Althea Gibson to participate in their annual championship, held in Forest Hills, New York. Gibson was the first African-American to compete in a U.S. national tennis competition, ever.
Gibson was raised in Harlem, starting her tennis practice at age fourteen. She won her first tournament at the tender age of fifteen. It was the New York State girls’ championship, held by the American Tennis Association. The ATA was founded in 1916 by African-American tennis players in response to the then-segregationist USLTA.
Gibson caught a lot of attention in the tennis world after her young debut. She was brought under the tutelage of Hubert Eaton and R. Walter Johnson, doctors and tennis aficionados. With their help, Gibson won the first of a run of ten consecutive ATA championships, in 1947.
In 1949, Gibson tried to compete in the USLTA’s National Grass Court Championships in Forest Hills but the USLTA refused to invite her to any qualifying tournaments. Alice Marble, a four-time Grass Court winner, wrote on Gibson’s behalf to American Lawn Tennis magazine, accusing the USLTA of “bigotry.” Marble wrote that if the USLTA players felt threatened by Ginson, “it’s only fair that they meet this challenge on the courts.”
Soon thereafter, the USLTA invited Gibson to compete in a qualifying event in New Jersey. She then qualified to compete at Forest Hills.
Gibson trounced a player named Barbara Knapp in her first USLTA tourney match. She then lost a very close match in round two to Louise Brough.
Gibson’s entrance into USLTA tournament play was not as dominant as her reign in the ATA. It took a few years for her to achieve her first major win. It came at the French Open in Paris in 1956. The next year, she won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. She was thirty years old at the time, competing against players much younger than herself.
The year after that, Gibson again won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. In 1958, she decided to go pro. The pro league was not as well-developed as the amateur league and her decision landed her in some strange gigs. For a time, she toured with the Harlem Globetrotters, doing tennis demonstrations during halftime at their games.
Gibson was also one of the first black players to ever compete on the women’s golf tour, in the early 1960’s. Unfortunately, she never won a tournament.
She has been compared with Jackie Robinson, the black player in the MLB. She dismissed the comparison. Nevertheless, she was a trailblazer for African-Americans in tennis. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971.
Gibson died in 2003, at age 76.