The year was 1956. It was 61 years ago that Althea Gibson made history on the tennis court and secured her title as a legend. On May 26, 1956, she won the Women’s singles championship at the French Open. She secured her place in history as being the first black person to win a major tennis championship. As we rave at the greatness of Serena Williams, there would be no Serena Williams or even Venus Williams without the historic play and sacrifice of Althea Gibson.
In addition to her historic accomplishment at the French Open, she also became the first black player to win Wimbledon and U.S. open titles. These accomplishments after she was ‘allowed’ to compete. Tennis, like the U.S. at the time, was a segregated sport. It was a white-dominated sport. An article was written putting the sport on blast for denying someone of Gibson’s caliber the right to play. Thanks to the article, Gibson entered the world of tennis and won Wimbledon, both the French and U.S. Opens. She was a top 10 player then her status increased to number 7 in 1953.
Between the years 1947-1956, Gibson had won a total of 10 championships. During that time span, she was able to travel around the world to countries such as India, Pakistan and Burma (now known as Myanmar). As her stardom in tennis grew, Gibson remained humble. In her autobiography I Always Wanted to be Somebody, she states that she didn’t see herself as a crusader and that she “didn’t beat the drum for any cause, not even the Negro in the United States”.
Gibson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971. Gibson had already retired from the sport when she was inducted. She remained in sports by taking a number of positions, one of them being Commissioner of Athletics for the state of New Jersey, a position she held for 10. She was also a member of the governor’s council for physical fitness.
Though she has denied it, Gibson was definitely a crusader, particularly for black athletes. We salute Ms. Gibson on the anniversary she made history and forever changed the complexion of not only tennis, but sports as a whole.
Source: Althea Gibson