Harlem native Althea Gibson became the first Black woman to win multiple tennis titles and her presence on the court created a sense of belonging.

When Althea Gibson was a young girl in the 1930s, she spent hours roaming her Harlem, New York neighborhood with her four siblings. Her beloved W. 143rd Street was a designated “play street,” and while the city bustled around them and the sounds of honking horns ricocheted off brick buildings, neighborhood kids raced, jumped rope, and played stickball in their urban oasis. 

On one such day, Gibson eagerly tore down her stairs, swung open the front door open and found a paddle tennis table right under her family’s stoop. No one could have known it then, but this was the beginning of her story; tennis would take this young Black girl out of her poor neighborhood and on to places she never could have imagined: France, England, Thailand, Rome. Gibson would change the sport as much as it changed her—she would become a pioneer among African American athletes, a role model for women, and was known to have one of the best serves in the history of women’s tennis.  

But before she would pick up a racket, she had to learn to fight.

Gibson’s parents were determined to provide the best life possible for their firstborn child, born in 1927 in a sharecropper’s shack on a South Carolina cotton farm. The 1920s South was not a promising place for a Black child, so the Gibsons moved their small family north to Harlem a few months after her birth. Harlem may have been a world away from difficult life of a Southern sharecropper, but the streets of New York City were a different kind of tough. Her father didn’t care that Gibson was a girl—he felt that she needed to learn how to stand up or herself by learning to fight. He taught her to box in their small apartment, and those lessons gave her the thick skin she needed to become “the female Jackie Robinson.” Gibson’s Harlem childhood became just as important to her career as her formal training in tennis.

It didn’t take long for Gibson to discover that she was a natural at any sport she tried, but she was a paddle tennis prodigy. With her quick reflexes and surefire serve, she could beat any challenger. By the time she was 12 years old, she had already won a citywide paddle tennis tournament against adult women. Her unmatched skill and competitive spirit earned her a reputation around W. 143rd Street. 

From their stoops, neighbors watched in awe as little Althea, the gangly neighborhood girl, grew into a standout athlete. While everyone wanted to see Gibson meet her full, and possibly professional, potential, few families in Harlem had the money to support such an endeavor. So a group of Gibson’s neighbors took up a collection to purchase her a junior membership at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club in Harlem, where she began to train in earnest.

Gibson had to leave behind her days as a “wild” kid in Harlem, where she liked to stay out late at the bowling alley and hang out with other tough neighborhood kids. She wanted to be more than the best in the neighborhood—she wanted to be the best, period. 

Practice paid off, and Gibson won her first tournament in 1942. She took the New York State girl’s championship, a competition sponsored by the American Tennis Association (ATA). The ATA was organized in 1916 by Black tennis enthusiasts as a response to white tennis associations that had excluded them. In the small but growing world of Black tennis, Gibson was a rising star. 

Gibson wasn’t just recognized for her skill and tennis prowess—she was also one of the only Black women to begin competing in the major tournaments. Gibson’s presence along was a statement of belonging. “I knew that I was an unusual, talented girl, through the grace of God,” Gibson wrote in her autobiography, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody. “I didn’t need to prove that to myself. I only wanted to prove it to my opponents.” 

Black role models inspired and pushed Gibson along the way. As she took home trophy after trophy, Gibson’s successes got the attention of Dr. Walter Johnson, a physician known as the “godfather of Black tennis.” Johnson offered up his personal courts and expert coaching to Gibson and other Black players who would otherwise be denied such opportunities. Through his mentorship, Gibson had access to better instruction and more important tournaments. 

While Dr. Johnson helped Gibson as a teacher, Harlem’s champion boxer Sugar Ray Robinson helped her as a friend. Gibson said of her role model, “[Sugar Ray Robinson] was somebody, and I was determined that I was going to be somebody, too, if it killed me.”

Gibson wins at Wimbledon/WikiCommons

In the 1950s, tennis culture wasn’t just extremely white. It was also extremely racist. In 1950, Gibson was 23, 5’11”, and was faster than she’d ever been. She had everything in common with the world’s best tennis players—except the color of her skin. Gibson was unable to enter the U.S. National Championships (now the U.S. Open), because the rulebook excluded African Americans. To play the game she loved, Gibson would first have to tear down the color barrier. 

Some of her white, would-be competitors used their positions of privilege to speak out against the ban. If they couldn’t try their skills against the best, how could they claim to be the best? Four-time U.S. National singles winner Alice Marble wrote a scathing letter to this point in the July 1950 issue of American Lawn Tennis magazine:

“If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentlepeople and less like sanctimonious hypocrites. If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it’s only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts.”

Finally, the United States Lawn Tennis Association relented, inviting Gibson to compete in the 1950 U.S. National at Forest Hills in New York. Gibson’s presence on the court was a revolution that forever changed the sport—she was the first African American, of any gender, to compete in a national tournament. While she lost narrowly to her opponent, the reigning Wimbledon champion, she had won something much bigger. 

“No Negro player, man or woman, has ever set foot on one of these courts,” wrote sports journalist Lester Rodney in The Daily Worker. “In many ways, it is an even tougher personal Jim Crow-busting assignment than was Jackie Robinson’s when he first stepped out of the Brooklyn Dodgers dugout.”

After Forest Hills, Gibson’s began a dizzying winning streak. In 1956, she became the first African American to win the French Open. She also won the Wimbledon doubles, the Italian National Championship in Rome, and the Asian championship in Ceylon. But Gibson most coveted the Wimbledon singles title. Then considered the world championship of tennis, this game would be her biggest challenge yet. 

“Everything was white,” said tennis legend Billie Jean King of Gibson’s Wimbledon match. “The balls, the clothes, the people, the socks, the shoes. Everything.” This homogenous “everything” told Gibson that she shouldn’t be there. But as she played before the Queen of England, Gibson became more than just a great tennis player; she was a pioneer for all African Americans who had been denied rightful opportunities.

In the singles final, Gibson faced off against Darlene Hard, darting across the court in more than 90 degree heat. Although exhausted, Gibson found the strength to hit her winning serve. The audience watched the two women, one white and the other Black, congratulate each other with a handshake; the simple gesture showed just how far tennis had come in the years since Black players had been barred from competition. In a moment that froze time, Gibson accepted her Wimbledon trophy from Queen Elizabeth II. Gibson later wrote , “Shaking hands with the queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus.”

The unlikeliness of that journey—accomplished during a time of Jim Crow segregation in the South and unofficial segregation elsewhere in the U.S.—inspired the nation. When she returned to New York City after her Wimbledon victory, Gibson was met with a ticker-tape parade as the city celebrated their homegrown tennis star. She was living proof that success could come to those raised on paddle tennis and the generosity of neighbors—not just country clubs and familial privilege. 

Gibson retired from tennis in 1958, at age 31. She had already claimed 56 national and international singles and doubles titles, including five Grand Slam singles championships. Modern tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams have praised Althea Gibson as a personal hero. Venus did not meet Gibson before her death in 2001, but wrote about a conversation they shared over the phone: “I was so star-struck that I was almost unable to say anything. It was like talking with history.”

In Gibson’s rise to greatness, nothing came easily, including breaking the color line, or the constant demand to represent her entire race. But as Gibson put best, “I always wanted to be somebody. If I made it, it’s half because I was game enough to take a lot of punishment along the way and half because there were a lot of people who cared enough to help me.” 

Gibson did become a “somebody”—one whose story has helped countless girls to find their own inner fight. 

Hannah Sherk is a Californian-turned-Portlander who traded her flip-flops for hiking boots. She teaches middle school language arts, where she is surrounded daily by amazing rebel girls. She loves teaching because she gets to help kids see themselves as the heroes of their own stories. When she’s not writing or editing, you might find her riding horses, swimming in the Willamette, or matchmaking her friends with a good book.

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