What happened on this day
On this day, May 26, 1956, at Roland Garros, Althea Gibson became the first black athlete to triumph in a Grand Slam tournament. More than just a milestone, Gibson’s victory represented a new possibility: instantly she was a symbol of an African American woman’s ability to rise above racism and prejudice. She became —and still is — a beacon of hope for equality in society and in sport. Gibson had to face outright discrimination before she was even permitted to compete in major tennis events. Her success marked a big step in favor of desegregation in tennis. It was also the first of a total of five Grand Slam crowns earned by the first African American tennis star in only three years’ time.
The story – from the streets to Grand Slam glory
Gibson was born in 1927 on a cotton farm in North Carolina, but she grew up in New York, where her family, hit by the Great Depression, moved in 1930. She made her debut with a racquet in the streets of Harlem, playing paddle-tennis, a game adapted from tennis, played on a smaller court without doubles alleys (not to be confused with the sport known as padel today).
Young Althea quickly learned to excel at this game and became the New York paddle champion in 1939, at the age of 12. Thanks to a collection made by her neighbours, she had the opportunity to become a member and take lessons at the Harlem Cosmopolitan Tennis Club, a club for African American players.
In 1941, Gibson started to play in the American Tennis Association (ATA), the African American equivalent to the USLTA. With famous boxer Sugar Ray Robinson’s financial help, Gibson captured junior national championships and in 1947 won the first of 10 straight ATA national women’s titles. Her strength, speed and fluidity allowed her to dominate the court.
Her successes were noticed by well-known coaches Walter Johnson and Hubert A. Eaton. With their help she managed to enter bigger tennis events, but the USLTA tournaments remained closed to her and other African Americans. The USLTA officially didn’t authorize racial segregation in tennis events, but many of its tournaments were actually held in all-white country clubs. Eventually Gibson’s immense talents helped her gain recognition and she forged a foothold in this world in 1949, becoming the first black woman to compete the USTA’s National Indoor Championships, where she reached the quarter-finals.
But it was not until 1950 that she could participate in the most important tournament held by the USTA, the National Championships in Forest Hills (the precursor to the US Open). After she had been denied access to the draw several years in a row, it took the intense lobbying of former champion Alice Marble to force the organization to let Althea Gibson compete. In a letter to the American Tennis Magazine, Marble wrote:
“If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen, it’s also time we acted a little more like gentle-people 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.”
Gibson was then admitted at the Forest Hills tournament and won her first round against Barbara Knapp, before losing to Louise Brough, defending Wimbledon champion, in a match played over two days because of a rain delay. It was a moment of tennis history, as sports writer David Eisenberg told Sports Illustrated:
“I have sat in on many dramatic moments in sports, but few were more thrilling than Miss Gibson’s performance against Miss Brough. Not because great tennis was played, because it wasn’t. But because of the great try by this lonely, and nervous, colored girl.”
Gibson’s inclusion in America’s biggest tennis event was not just the story of a tennis player making her way to the top. For the African American community, this was comparable to what Jackie Robinson had done in baseball before: a milestone in the fight for civil rights.
In 1951, at the Caribbean Championships in Jamaica, Gibson won her first international tournament, and in July she became the first black woman to play in Wimbledon, reaching the third round.
In 1956, Gibson came for the first time to Paris to play the French Open, as the No 3 seed. There, she dropped only one set on her way to the final against Angela Buxton, in the semi-final that she won 2-6, 6-0, 6-4.
On Saturday May 26, 1956, Gibson defeated world No 1 Angela Mortimer for the first time in five encounters, 6-0, 12-10 (the tiebreak had not been introduced yet), and she became the first black athlete in tennis history to claim a Grand Slam tournament. African American champion MaliVai Washington, runner-up at Wimbledon 40 years later, in 1996, summed up for ESPN the impact of this win:
“In every sport there are trailblazers we look to and say, ‘If it weren’t for this person, I might not be where I am today.’ Everyone has said that about Arthur Ashe, but about a decade before Ashe was winning Grand Slam titles, Gibson had already won them – the first African-American to ever do so.
But when she was winning, tennis majors didn’t receive the worldwide attention they get today. As a result, many young tennis players today don’t know much about Gibson, who broke barriers when the sport was still mostly played in country clubs.”
What next – Wimbledon and US Open glory
The following year, in 1957, Gibson would reach new milestones, triumphing at Wimbledon and the US Open. At the All England Club, she won in front Queen Elizabeth II:
“Shaking hands with the queen of England,” she said, “was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus.”
On July 11, coming back to New York, she became only the second Black American, after the 1936 Olympic champion Jesse Owens, to be honored with a ticker tape parade. In 1958, she would become the first black woman to make the cover of Time and Sports Illustrated.
In total, Gibson would claim five Grand Slam titles in singles, five in doubles, and one in mixed doubles.
At the end of 1958, she would turn professional, signing a contract with the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team to play exhibition matches before their games. She would not be satisfied with the way her professional career turned:
“When I looked around me, I saw that white tennis players, some of whom I had thrashed on the court, were picking up offers and invitations,” she would write. “Suddenly it dawned on me that my triumphs had not destroyed the racial barriers once and for all, as I had—perhaps naively—hoped.)”
At the same time, being a talented singer, she would record an album of popular standards, Althea Gibson Sings.
Breaking barriers in tennis would not be enough for Althea Gibson. In 1964 she would begin a career in professional golf. Still suffering from racial prejudice, having sometimes to get dressed in her car as country clubs would still not admit black people on their premises, she would climb as far as No 27 in the world before retiring in 1978.
It would be 41 years before another black woman claimed a Grand Slam title. That would be Serena Williams, who won her first major at the age of 17 at the 1999 US Open. According to Williams’ sister Venus, Gibson watched the final, happy to see another black woman win in her lifetime.
Gibson passed away in 2003, 16 years before her deeds were honoured at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in New York, with the unveiling of a statue of her in front of the Arthur Ashe Stadium.