From the Back of the Bus to Wimbledon

On this day in 1957, Althea Gibson takes the women’s singles tennis title at Wimbledon and becomes the first African American to win a championship at London’s All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (Wimbledon). After accepting her trophy personally from Queen Elizabeth, Gibson later remarked “Shaking hands with the queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus.”

Gibson was born on August 25, 1927, in the town of Silver, South Carolina, to Daniel and Annie Bell Gibson, who worked as sharecroppers on a cotton farm. Fleeing the privations of the Depression, the family moved to Harlem in 1930, where Althea’s three sisters and brother were born. With their walk-up apartment block between Lenox Avenue and Seventh Avenue cordoned off as a designated Police Athletic League play area during daylight hours, Gibson quickly became proficient in paddle tennis. By 1939, at age 12, Gibson was already the New York City women’s paddle tennis champion; her natural gifts had only just begun to emerge.

Gibson continued development through private sponsorship, mentoring, and a full scholarship to Florida A&M University, but was initially barred from the U.S. Nationals (U.S. Open); invitations were ostensibly based on accumulated points, and Gibson’s numbers were depressed as many clubs across the country were restricted to whites only. Finally caving to a lobbying campaign in 1950, the Open extended an invitation to Gibson and she premiered at Forest Hills on her 23rd birthday. “No Negro player, man or woman, has ever set foot on one of these courts,” wrote journalist Lester Rodney at the time. “In many ways, it is even a tougher personal Jim Crow-busting assignment than was Jackie Robinson’s when he first stepped out of the Brooklyn Dodgers dugout.”

In 1956, Gibson became the first person of color to win a Grand Slam title in the French Championships. Then in 1957 she won her first Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals (U.S. Open), took them again in 1958, and was voted Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press in both years. All told, she won 56 national and international singles and doubles titles, including 11 Grand Slam tournaments, and became the first black woman to appear on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time.

Yet Gibson’s story was far from over. As the sport had not yet developed to a self-supporting career path, Gibson retired from amateur tennis. Turning to her other gifts, as a talented and personable singer and saxophone player, Gibson pursed a career in music, television and film, appearing with some frequency and releasing her first memoir in 1960.

With her competitive spirit and discipline still roiling, in 1964, at the age of 37, Gibson became the first African-American woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour. Again racial discrimination reared its head, as accommodations still excluded people of color, and country club officials routinely refused to allow her to compete. When she did compete, she was often forced to dress for tournaments in her car because she was banned from the clubhouse and despite status as one of LPGA’s top 50 money winners for five years, her lifetime golf earnings never exceeded $25,000.

Placing Gibson’s talent in context, It would be 15 years from her first French Open title before another woman of color, Evonne Goolagong, would win a Grand Slam championship, and 43 years before another African-American woman, Serena Williams, won her first of six U.S. Opens in 1999, with some last-minute informal mentoring from Gibson. Serena’s sister Venus then won back-to-back titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2000 and 2001, repeating Gibson’s accomplishments of 1957 and 1958. “She is one of the greatest players who ever lived,” said Robert Ryland, a tennis contemporary and former coach of Venus and Serena Williams. “Martina couldn’t touch her. I think she’d beat the Williams sisters.”

Passing in 2003 at the age of 76, Gibson’s honors include the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame, National Lawn Tennis Hall of Fame, the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the Florida Sports Hall of Fame, the Black Athletes Hall of Fame, the Sports Hall of Fame of New Jersey, the New Jersey Hall of Fame, the International Scholar-Athlete Hall of Fame, and the International Women’s Hall of Fame.

In 2018, the USTA unanimously voted to erect a statue honoring Gibson at Flushing Meadows, site of the U.S. Open. “I hope that I have accomplished just one thing,” Gibson said in 1958, “that I have been a credit to tennis, and to my country.” “By all measures,” reads the inscription on her Newark statue, “Althea Gibson certainly attained that goal.”

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.

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