Black History Month: Althea Gibson Broke Barriers in Tennis and Golf

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This February, Sports Illustrated is celebrating Black History Month by spotlighting a different iconic athlete or group of athletes every day. Today, SI looks back on the legacy of Althea Gibson.

Althea Gibson was the first African American tennis player to be ranked No. 1 in the world. She was the first African American to compete in the once-segregated U.S. Open, which opened the door for a career that saw plenty of championships: One French Open, two U.S. Opens and two Wimbledons. 

To top it all off, she was a world-class golfer, becoming the first African American to compete on the Women's Professional Golf Tour. 

Through her grit and noncompliance toward the sports' regressive policies on race, Gibson became a pioneer for future generations of African American athletes in tennis and golf, including Venus and Serena Williams and Tiger Woods. 

“This is not just a player who won a ton of titles—this is someone who transcended our sport and opened a pathway for people of color,” Katrina Adams, the first African American USTA president, told The New York Times. “If there was no Althea, there’d be no me, because tennis would not have been so open to me. Everything she had to do was three times harder than it was for the normal person.”

After becoming the first black Wimbledon winner in history in 1957, Gibson returned to the U.S. to a ticker-tape parade in New York City. She became just the second African American to be honored in that manner, after Jesse Owens. Gibson also had the opportunity to meet Queen Elizabeth II following her win, which Gibson recounted in her autobiography.

“Shaking hands with the Queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus," Gibson wrote in 1958. 

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Gibson was also known for her soft-spoken, humble confidence. This excerpt is from a Sports Illustrated story on the pioneer from 1957:

"Are you ready for the Nationals?" I asked her. 

"Sure," said Althea. "I'm not afraid of any of the players there." 

"I was hoping you would say that," I put in. 

"What I mean is," Althea Gibson finished her thought, "if I play my right game the way I should, then I feel I can beat anybody. But I certainly don't want to be overconfident, because if I play badly, I can easily be beaten by some black sheep. But I don't think I will be."

Last year, a Gibson statue was erected on the grounds of the U.S. Open.

“Althea reoriented the world and changed our perceptions of what is possible,” Eric Goulder, the sculptor of her statue, told The New York Times. “We are still struggling. But she broke the ground.”

From the SI Vault:

"Althea Gibson," by Sarah Palfrey. (Sept. 2, 1957)

"The New Gibson Girl," (July 2, 1956)