Some victories pivotal to African-American advancement in the 1950s occurred by way of boycotts, marches, and legal arguments. For other accomplishments, we have the tenacity, determination, and superlative talent of American tennis legend Althea Gibson (pictured) to thank.
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Gibson became the first Black player to win Wimbledon on today’s date in 1957, taking only 50 minutes to defeat fellow American Darlene Hard in convincing fashion by a margin of 6-3, 6-2.
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Then 29, the 5-foot-11-inch Gibson was at the pinnacle of her abilities and approached the game with an unprecedented athleticism, dominating opponents with a powerful serve and long, swift strides that allowed her to cover the court.
Later that year, Gibson teamed up with Hard to secure the women’s doubles title before returning to Wimbledon the following year to successfully defend her singles crown.
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Althea Gibson was born on August 25, 1927, in Silver, South Carolina. As the eldest of five children, Gibson was raised in Harlem, New York, where her dislike of school was so pronounced that she frequently played hooky.
Instead, Gibson preferred sports, initially gravitating to basketball before becoming proficient in paddle tennis and winning the Manhattan Girls Championship. In 1942, local band leader Buddy Walker equipped her with a racket and acquainted Gibson with the interracial Cosmopolitan Tennis Club, where she quickly excelled, winning the New York State Negro Girls title the following year. Gibson’s skill and confidence blossomed as she went on to capture the national title for Black girls in 1945 and 1946.
Watch Althea Gibson being presented a Wimbledon Trophy by Queen Elizabeth:
Despite ruling the segregated tennis scene, she was still deprived of the chance to challenge her White counterparts at the highest level until four-time U.S. title-winner Alice Marble championed Gibson’s cause in the July 1950 issue of American Lawn Tennis, saying that Gibson’s excellence had earned her the right to compete.
The United States Tennis Lawn Association relented, allowing Gibson to participate that year in the U.S. Championships at Forest Hills. The venture was not an immediate success, as Gibson faced a steep learning curve in adapting to the elevated competition, and some clubs that hosted tournaments continued to reject her on account of her race.
Still, by 1952, she’d achieved a No. 9 ranking among American women, and in 1956, she vanquished defending champion Angela Mortimer 6-0, 12-10 for her first major title at the French Championships.
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Even as Gibson accrued impressive triumphs on the court, winning did not afford her equality everywhere else. She was continually denied rooms at hotels. One hotel even declined to accept reservations for a luncheon to be held in Gibson’s honor.
Watch Althea Gibson reflect on her tennis career here:
After her historic victory at Wimbledon, Gibson became the first Black named Woman Athlete of the Year in 1957 by the Associated Press. She earned the distinction again in 1958 before retiring from tennis with an outstanding 53-9 singles record in Grand Slam events, including 27-7 at the U.S., 6-0 at the French, 4-1 at the Australian, and 16-1 at Wimbledon competitions.
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A Renaissance woman, Gibson dabbled in singing and playing saxophone after her retirement, releasing the album “Althea Gibson Sings” in 1959. She also appeared on screen in the film “The Horse Soldiers.” With no professional tennis tour available in her time, Gibson played exhibition tennis matches to entertain onlookers prior to Harlem Globetrotter games, earning a reported $100,000 in 1959.
Gibson, who is colloquially referred to as “the female Jackie Robinson,” also contributed meaningfully to the integration of golf, becoming the first Black woman on the LPGA tour in 1962. Gibson passed away on September 28, 2003, in East Orange, New Jersey, leaving behind a legacy of resilience, unflappable self-belief, and extraordinary achievement.
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