Althea Neale Gibson
DJ Name: Althea Hits
Though we primarily concern ourselves with dorky things like history and reading and understanding the nuances of citrus IPAs, we also heard something very cool called tennis was happening at the moment. Emmy and Camille wished that meant the band Tennis was coming to play, but tennis the sport is OK, too.
Wimbledon is back, baby, after a year’s hiatus due to Covid, and that means this week’s Historic Shuffle is sports-themed (we like #sports and we don’t care who knows!). And though this year’s Wimbledon and many more before it feature players of all different races, that wasn’t always the case. Back when the hashtag #WimledonSoWhite was trending, Althea Neale Gibson defied societal norms and became the first Black tennis player to compete at the Grand Slam in 1951. But, of course, she had some motivational pump-up jams to help her keep her eye on the prize and her head in the game:
Althea Gibson was born on August 25, 1927, in Clarendon County, South Carolina, to Daniel and Annie Bell Gibson. Her parents worked as sharecroppers on a cotton farm in their small southern town, but the Great Depression hit early there and forced the family to pick up their lives and relocate to Harlem in 1930. The Gibson crew was one of many Black families that cleared out of their impoverished southern towns during this era of the Great Migration and relocated to cities such as New York and Chicago. Once settled in their new home on 143rd Street, the Gibsons added another three daughters and a son to their crew. Althea and her siblings grew up in what was then called a Police Athletic League area, which meant that their street was barricaded during daylight hours so that kids could play organized sports. Althea’s fave was paddle tennis (which is different from tickle ball…oops, we mean pickleball) , and she could paddle that tennis ball better than any of the kids…and better than any of the adults, too. By 1939, when she was 12, she was the New York City women’s paddle tennis reigning champ.
Life at home was a lot tougher than life on the paddle tennis court. Her parents struggled to make ends meet as they went on and off public assistance, her dad had some anger issues and her grades in school dipped. When she was 13, she decided to just stick to sports and dropped out of school entirely. Her neighbors, noticing her potential, collected money to finance her junior membership at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club in Harlem. But Althea wasn’t much of a tennis fan and thought it was a sport for “weak people” in comparison to paddle tennis. But she gritted her teeth and served up the balls with a side of sass that were followed up with a piping hot plate of victory. In 1941, she entered and won her first tournament. That tourney was sponsored by the American Tennis Association, which was founded by Black athletes with the goal of sponsoring tournaments for other Black players.
She followed up her first ATA win with another two consecutive victories in 1944 and 1945, but slipped up in 1946. However, she came back swingin’ (her tennis racquet) the next year and this time she didn’t slip: she won the next 10 straight ATA championships from 1947-1956. The ATA said “ATTAgirl,” and she took her tennis talents to Florida A&M University on a sports scholarship. She graduated in 1953, while still competing all over the country throughout her college career such as at the not-a-big-deal U.S. Open where she lost in the championship to Wimbledon extraordinaire, Louise Brough. However, the hurdles she faced during this period almost drove her to quit sports altogether and join the U.S. Army instead. The big issue at play was that much of the tennis tourneys were inaccessible since they were only open to white players. But Althea said, “Love, I don’t give up that quickly” and she went from zero to 40 real quick (please tell us we’re using tennis terms correctly!).
Like her contemporary Historic Shuffle honoree, Arthur Ashe, Althea too was wooed by Walter Johnson, a Virginia-based physician who was well-known in the Black tennis community. Under Walter’s mentorship, Althea the athlete gained access to more tournaments and better coaching. Another big pro was that a tennis champ named Alice Marble wrote a strongly worded article in American Lawn Tennis magazine that threw shade on American tennis for not allowing a star player such as Althea to play in all the matches that she wanted to compete in. The article was highly retweeted and shared, hence the hashtag #WimbeldonSoWhite, duh, and the times they were a-changin’. One year after the article went viral, in 1951, Althea became the first Black tennis player to compete at Wimbledon. A year after that, she cracked the list of top 10 tennis players in the U.S.and went on to claim the seventh ranking.
The sponsorships came rollin’ in and companies all across the states were asking her to collab and #promote their cute tennis looks. However, because this was the pre-Open Era of tennis, Althea was not collecting many dolla dolla bill$ (TBT to when we learned about the Open Era with fellow tennis talent and Shuffler, Arthur Ashe). For Althea, it went more like: She received limited expense allowances and endorsement deals were prohibited (So, sadly there were no limited edition Nikes by Althea the athlete). In 1955, the United States Lawn Tennis Association sent her around the world (not in 80 days) on a State Department tour to compete throughout Europe and Asian in places like India, Pakistan and Tenniszania. A year later, Althea strutted onto the hallowed clay courts of the Roland-Garros and claimed her title as the women’s champion of the French Open, which also made her the first African-American to do so.
Althea’s trophies tallied up over the years as she collected title after title. Some would say Althea the athlete had WimbleDONE it when she defeated Darlene Hard 6-3, 6-2 (#tennisterms) to win the ladies’ ‘ship and a hug from Queen Elizabeth II (and her corgis). Althea shared, “Shaking hands with the Queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus.” She was the first African American player to win the singles title in the 80 year history of Wimbledon. Oh also, Althea’s Wimbledon win didn’t stop with the singles. She also won the doubles that same year. Althea came home to New York and was celebrated with a ticker tape parade AKA tennis balls were flyin’ and bouncing off those Manhattan skyscrapers as people chanted, “Althea is the Champion.” JK. It was more like tons of confetti.
Though she won Wimbledon, the grind didn’t stop for Althea Neale Gibson. A month after her celebratory parade, she won her first U.S. National tennis Championship. All in the year of 1957, she reached the finals of eight Grand Slam events. Causal. The following year she successfully defended her Wimbledon and U.S. National Championship titles and was the number-one-ranked woman in the world. She came a long way from her former spot of number 7. The Associated Press named her Female Athlete of the Year and shortly thereafter she became the first Black woman to appear on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time magazines. At the end of 1958, Gibson hung up her sneakers and rackets with pride. She retired at the age of 31 having won 56 national and International singles and doubles titles.
After she retired, Althea the athlete still participated in promotional events and even played matches before the Harlem Globetrotters games for which she allegedly made $100,000. It was important for Althea that she made money from her game because she hadn’t for so long. She shared that part of the reason she retired was because crowns and trophies didn’t pay bills.
In her post-tennis life, Althea practiced her perfect pitch and shared her vocals with the world. Althea Gibson Sings was released in 1959, and she performed on The Ed Sullivan Show to strut her songs across stage. For a short time after that, Althea the athlete said, “Who’s your caddy?” and picked up some golf clubs. She made history again as the first Black woman to ever compete on a pro tour.
Later in life, Althea was inducted into the international Tennis Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Halls of Fame. Althea the athlete stayed connected with the #sports world and served 10 years as the Commissioner of Athletics for the
Pawnee Parks and Rec department New Jersey state department. Gibson’s last few years of life were, unfortunately, riddled with hardship as she nearly went bankrupt due to medical expenses in response to her declining health. Fellow tennis greats like Billie Jean King stepped in to help her out. Althea Neale Gibson died of respiratory failure on September 28, 2003 in East Orange, New Jersey.
Throughout her life, some credited Althea’s talents to ten percent luck. Others to twenty percent skill. Maybe even fifty percent concentrated power of will. Could it have been five percent pleasure or fifty percent pain? Regardless, the life and tennis talents of Althea Neale Gibson are a hundred percent reason to remember *her* name.