Childhood & Early Life
Born in Clarendon County, South Carolina, on August 25th 1927, to cotton farmers Daniel and Annie Bell Gibson, Althea was the eldest of all her siblings, which included three sisters and a brother, apart from her. The rest of her siblings were born in Harlem, a place where the family migrated when the great depression affected the rural farmers.
As a child, she often didn’t turn up at school, but developed a strong liking towards sports.
Her family resided close to the area which belonged to the ‘Police Athletic League’, and was meant for sport-related activities. This was where she learnt to play paddle tennis, and by 1939 she went on to win the New York City’s ‘Women Paddle Tennis championship’.
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Having established herself as a pro in paddle tennis in her neighbourhood, Althea’s talent was noted by musician Buddy Walker. He encouraged her to play tennis and thus began Gibson’s tryst with the sport.
She put up an impressive show at the recreational games, which was organized by the local authorities. This led to her enrolment to the ‘Cosmopolitan Tennis Club’, Harlem, in 1940. Her family struggled to make ends meet and was unable to sponsor her membership. However, after realizing her potential, the families in her neighbourhood chipped in to raise funds for her membership.
This budding tennis player’s first rendezvous with glory happened in 1941, when she won the ‘New York State Championship’, an event organized by ‘American Tennis Association (ATA)’. The ‘ATA’ was an organization which sponsored and promoted African-American players in tennis. Her success in the tournament, gave this player the opportunity to hone her skills under the tutelage of physician Walter Johnson.
In 1944, and the year later, she emerged victorious in the girls category of the ‘ATA National Championship’.
She shifted base from Harlem to North Carolina in 1946, after the physician Hubert A. Eaton decided to offer her financial assistance. The same year, she reached the finals in the women’s category of the ‘ATA National Championship’, but lost the tournament.
However, she regained the lost title in 1947, and retained the honour for the next nine years.
Propelled by her ‘ATA’ success, Althea gained access to other important competitions, including the one conducted by ‘United States Tennis Association’. In the 1949 ‘National indoor Championship’ organized by ‘USTA’, she qualified for the quarter finals. She earned a full scholarship, on athletic grounds, from the ‘Florida A&M University’ the same year, after finally completing her primary education from ‘Williston High School’.
Despite being a gifted player, she went through a lot of hardships, as the world of tennis was gripped by the clutches of apartheid, and a lot of tournaments debarred black players from participating.
During this time, many of the tennis greats voiced their support for her, including ‘ATA’ officials and Alice Marble, who wrote an open letter disparaging the tennis fraternity’s discriminatory attitude towards black players. This letter caused quite a stir in the sports fraternity, and Gibson was called to participate in the ‘US Open’ tournament.
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Her participation received much national and international hype, as she was the first black competitor to have made it to the ‘US Open’ in 1950, and the ‘Wimbledon’ a year later.
She climbed the rank ladder steadily and registered her first international win during the ‘Caribbean Championships’ in 1951. By the next year, she had secured a place among the top ten players in the US.
She even did a brief stint as an athletic instructor at the ‘Lincoln University’, after her graduation from ‘A&M University’ in 1953.
While she was in a dilemma whether or not to be a part of the US Army, the ‘American Lawn Tennis Association’ selected her to be a part of the State Department’s goodwill delegation sent to Asian countries in 1955.
As a part of the six week tour, the delegation visited many countries of the Indian sub-continent.
With her towering height and long limbs, she became an expert of volley, and was known for her serves. In 1956, she won her first grand slam title in the ‘French Open’.
During the 1957 ‘Wimbledon’, she clinched the singles and the doubles title. She also won the ‘US Open’ title the same year. Her success was celebrated with a ticker tape parade in New York. She was also felicitated with the city’s highest civilian award, the ‘Bronze Medallion’.
The year 1957 was a glorious period in the life of Althea. Apart from the ‘US Open’ and ‘Wimbledon’ wins, she triumphed at the ‘Australian Doubles’ and ‘US Mixed doubles’ events. She also won the runners up trophy in the ‘Australian Singles’, ‘US Doubles’, and ‘Wimbledon Mixed Doubles events’.
The year 1958, saw her successfully defending her ‘US Open’, ‘Wimbledon singles’ as well as the ‘Wimbledon Doubles’ titles. With her national and international wins tallying up to 56, she retired from amateur tennis at the age of 31.
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As in the times before the ‘Open’ era of tennis, the players were not entitled to any prize money. She had to take up promotional events and exhibition matches to keep herself afloat.
She forayed into the entertainment industry in the year 1959, when her first album ‘Althea Gibson Sings’ with the label ‘Dot Records’ was released. She also worked as a sports commentator and took to print and TV ads during this time.
In 1964, she again dazed the world by participating in the ‘Ladies Professional Golf Association’ (LPGA) tour. Althea became the first African-American woman to participate in the sport. Her athletic prowess helped her in the game, but she couldn’t match up to her glorifying tennis feats.
Though she faced criticism for being a black, Althea never let the bigotry come in her way. She retired from the sport in 1978, with a career best ranking of 27.
The tennis player made a comeback to tennis when the open era finally arrived, but she had lost her agility and strength by the time, and could not fare well against young competitors.
Over the next decade, she also took to coaching upcoming tennis players and got involved in various social causes revolving around tennis. She also held the post of New Jersey's Athletic Commissioner in 1976. She also worked on the supervisory body for the Governor’s council on Physical Fitness and Sports.
Personal Life & Legacy
Althea married William Darben in 1965. They were introduced to each other through Rosemary Darben, a tennis player who also happened to be the tennis player’s best friend. The eleven-year-old marriage ended in divorce.
Althea entered the wedlock again in 1983. This relationship, with Sydney Llewellyn, her one time tennis coach, also culminated in divorce five years later. Despite two marriages, she had no children of her own.
This iconic tennis player succumbed to respiratory problems and bladder infections on September 28th, 2003. She was also a victim of a heart attack, but managed to survive it.
To commemorate Gibson's contribution to sports, the United States Postal Service released a postage stamp in August 2013.