On August 22nd of 1950, Althea Gibson was accepted into the United States Lawn Tennis Association's (USLTA) annual championship at Forest Hills, New York. This made her the first African American man or woman to compete in a United States national tennis competition.
Althea Gibson was born in Silver, South Carolina in 1927. She was the oldest of five children born to parents who worked in the cotton field. At the age of three, Althea and her family moved to Harlem, where Althea spent the rest of her childhood years. Althea Gibson was a natural born athlete who missed a lot of school. As a child, she joined the Police Athletic League for troubled youth. In 1940 the PAL promoted a paddle ball game competition. Gibson became so good at paddleball that the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club sponsored her to learn the game of tennis, as well as “proper social behavior.”
Althea started playing tennis seriously at the age of 14. She won her first tournament, the New York State Girls Championship, the following year. The girl’s championship had been sponsored by the American Tennis Association, a group which was organized by African American players in 1916, as an alternative to the all-white USLTA. Starting in 1947, Althea went on to win 10 straight ATA championships.
In 1949, Gibson tried to enter the National Grass Court Championship, and was denied entry. At that point, admirer and fellow tennis player Alice Marble wrote a letter on Althea's behalf to the USLTA, calling the association out for its overt bigotry, going as far as to suggest that other players were afraid to play Althea Gibson. As a result, Gibson was invited to play in a New Jersey qualifying event. This was where she earned herself a spot at Forest Hills.
On August 28th of 1950, Gibson beat Barbara Knapp in her first USLTA tournament match. Still, Gibson struggled through her first few years on tour, finally scoring her first major victory in 1956, at the French Open in Paris. The next year, at the age of 30, and also the year after that, she won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. It was around this time that Althea Gibson was regarded as the best female tennis player in the world. Then Althea decided to go pro. However, the pro tennis circuit in those days was still in its infancy. At one time, Althea toured with the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, playing tennis during their half time breaks.
In the 1960s, Althea Gibson became the first player of color to compete on the pro golf tour for women. This was also quite an accomplishment, although she failed to score any victories. Still, Gibson is credited with paving the way for other African American tennis players such as Arthur Ashe, and the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena. Althea Gibson was elected into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971. She eventually wrote a story of her life, called I Always Wanted to Be Somebody. Althea Gibson died in 2003 at the age of 76.