The Remarkable Story of Althea Gibson

by Omarr Lee

Some people may not know the inspiring story of Althea Gibson, who would in 1957, become the first African-American (man or woman) tennis player to win the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, but those that have heard her heroic story, know that it is one you will never forget. As a child, her family was on welfare, and she would frequently miss school. On several occasions, she even ran away from home, and even through all this hysteria, she still found time to play paddle tennis at a nearby recreation center, and this is where her talent was first noticed.

In the 1930’s, Buddy Walker was a well-known musician, and he was one of the first people to notice Gibson’s talent with paddle tennis. Buddy occasionally made special trips to the recreation center because he thought that Gibson was so talented with the sport. He would eventually introduce her to Dr. Walter Johnson, who was very active in the black community with tennis. Dr. Johnson was a local physician, but he still found time to be involved in the tennis community, and he would occasionally give Gibson tennis lessons.

Through charity and donations, the youthful Gibson would eventually become a member of the Harlem Cosmopolitan Tennis Club, which was a club strictly for African-Americans. As a member of the tennis club, Gibson flourished as a player. In 1942, Gibson’s strong determination would soon lead her into winning the girls’ singles title at the American Tennis Association’s New York State Tournament. She would repeat again as champion in 1944 and ’45. In 1946, with the support of sponsors, Gibson moved to Wilmington, NC for tennis training, and in 1947, at the age of 20, she would win the first of 10 consecutive national championships sponsored by the American Tennis Association (ATA).

In 1951, at the age of 23, Gibson made her first appearance at the British Championships in London, England, also known as Wimbledon. Her journey from the cruel streets of Harlem, NY, to the royal courts of Wimbledon illustrates her strong desire to never lose hope, and along with playing tennis, Gibson still stayed active in her studies at Florida A&M University (FAMU). In 1953, Gibson graduated from FAMU, and later moved to Jefferson City, Missouri, and worked as an athletic instructor at Lincoln University.

In 1957, Gibson won the women’s singles and doubles championship at Wimbledon, therefore making her the first African-American to ever achieve such a feat, and in recognition of her achievement –and for being African-American – the city of New York welcomed her home with a parade. In 1958, she would again win both the singles and doubles title at Wimbledon. Later that year, Gibson would have an autobiography published in her honor. The autobiography was titled “I Always Wanted to Be Somebody,” and it described her childhood dreams in Harlem, and her aspirations on the tennis court. Gibson did not only play tennis professionally, she also was a professional golfer and actress.

In the 1970’s, Gibson served in various national and New Jersey positions in tennis and recreation, therefore receiving many honors for her commitment. In 1971, she was inducted into the National Lawn Tennis Hall of Fame, and in the same year, she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. In 1974, she was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame, and in 1983, she was inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Fame. In 1984, she inducted into the Florida Sports Hall of Fame, so Gibson indeed has a lot to show for her commitment to the game of tennis. Gibson is an excellent person for anyone to read about because she overcame so much in her lifetime, and has fulfilled so many dreams.

The Remarkable Story of Althea Gibson by Omarr Lee

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