The 2022 U.S. Open just started, but in 1957 a black woman who grew up in Harlem, beat the odds, won it, and became the #1 Tennis player in the world.
Her name was Althea Gibson, and she was one of those players whose careers made you love tennis even if you were not originally a fan.
DISCLAIMER: Prior to learning more Althea, all I knew about tennis was that I absolutely loved Venus and Serena Williams, and though I have no current plans to even pick up a racket, I would like to be them when I grow up.
However, the opportunity for players like the Williams sisters to emerge may not have even existed had the door not already been opened by Althea Gibson, who became the first black woman to win Wimbledon, the U.S, Open, and the French open. She shattered glass ceilings in a time when black people were often excluded from major tennis competitions and, with a natural mix of talent, resilience, and pure determination, Althea Gibson used tennis to change the world.
Althea was born in 1927 in Silver, South Carolina. Her family moved to New York when she was very young in search of better opportunities. They settled in Harlem, a neighborhood that had already produced so much talent, and though they did not know it yet, Althea was destined to be one of the greats.
Nevertheless, growing up, Althea was a kid who constantly got into trouble. Her strong willed personality made her fearless, determined and competitive. Though these characteristics make for a perfect athlete, she lacked discipline, so when she picked up tennis after becoming the paddle ball champion of her neighborhood, her community rallied around her to provide her with the tools she needed to succeed and it was beautiful!
Like most things in our country, American Tennis began with discriminatory rules that excluded people of color, so in order to get our heads in the game, we had to create our own lanes. As a response to the discrimination in American tennis, The American Tennis Association was created to promote the sport within the black community. The ATA is the oldest African- American sports organization in the United States and over 100 years old it still stands today, and through this organization Althea began to train and compete. Althea’s community supported her, mentored her, got her in to black tennis clubs, which eventually led to her going to college on a tennis scholarship.
The ATA provided so many opportunities for a young Althea and through she was grateful she wanted more, but discrimination continued to exclude her from playing in large mainstream competitions. However, Althea got so good, she became undeniable and her talent eventually led to her breaking the color line and becoming one of the greatest players of all time!!
Althea won Wimbledon in 1957 and the win and was so celebrated that Queen Elizabeth presented her her award. (BTW Wimbledon was not won again by another black woman until 43 years later when Venus won it.) She travelled the world playing tournaments and winning yet continually dealing with racism. She was the #1 tennis player in the world but she wasn’t always allowed to use the locker rooms, the hotels, or restrooms while touring. She also had to play through racial slurs being yelled at her but she remained focus and let her wins speak for her.
When Althea came home, she was celebrated, the applause could not pay her bills. She became a singer and actress, she travelled with the Harlem Globetrotters doing Basketball tricks, and she started playing professional golf making her the first black woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
Nothing was enough, and though she was a national treasure, Althea was never paid her worth for her talent. Towards the end of her life other tennis greats like Billie jean King raised money for her just to meet her basic needs Understanding her worth to the game, they raised over 1 million dollars to support her! Al
I share Althea's story because as we watch and cheer for the U.S. Open this year, we have to remember that things would have been very different had the world not had an Althea Gibson. She revolutionized a sport that did not even want black women to play in, and in the process of persevering through extreme adversity, she proved to be, not only a survivor, but a true hero. She is a reminder to little girls and women everywhere that life is more than a game. Your hard work could change the world, and while I wish she lived in a time she could have made as much money as her contemporaries, I’m thankful that she blazed a trail for generations to come!
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