Sixty years ago today, July 6, 1957, Althea Gibson showed the world she was an athlete to contend with, breaking America's race barrier as the first black woman to win the women's singles tennis title at Wimbledon, defeating Darlene Hard, 6-3, 6-2.
Born the daughter of sharecroppers in 1927 in South Carolina, and raised in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, Gibson’s athletic power would emerge during her teen years, when she twice won the national black women’s tennis championship.
At 5’11,’ Gibson was all muscle and grace. And, according to those who have closely watched her career, Gibson could be quite intimidating on court.
But in 1956, America was racially segregated, and women athletes, even the most elite, took a back seat to men.
Arthur Ashe is often cited as the first black American to win Wimbledon; he did win, but his victory came 17 years later in 1975.
No societal barrier or bias seemed to stop Gibson. In 1950, she made her U.S. Open debut, and six years later, her tennis career shifted into high gear with her singles’ win at the French Open, the first African American to do so, along with the doubles’ title there.
Gibson’s professional achievements continued in 1957, when she won the U.S. Nationals, later to become the U.S. Open.
She won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals again in 1958, claimed her third consecutive doubles championship at Wimbledon, and the Associated Press named her Female Athlete of the Year in 1957 and 1958.
After her ’58 Wimbledon victory, Gibson retired from the tennis circuit, but kept on making history. In 1960, she toured with the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, playing exhibition tennis matches before their games.
In 1964, Gibson became the first black woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour. She also played and excelled at pro golf until 1971, the same year in which she was voted into the National Lawn Tennis Association Hall of Fame.
Althea Gibson died at age 76 from respiratory failure on September 28, 2003, at a hospital in East Orange, New Jersey.
Of Gibson, Serena Williams, America’s contemporary long-time reigning black female tennis star would say (x), “Althea Gibson paved the way for all women of color in sport. She won Wimbledon in 1958. I have held that same plate. Thank you Althea.”