A color barrier broken; Althea Gibson’s story

Women’s tennis’ first Black champion is one of its GOATs



Althea Gibson one of the tennis greats. She won five Grand Slam single titles.

BRANDON WILLMAN, Multimedia editor

When thinking of those athletes who broke through color barriers in their respective sports, most minds immediately think of Jackie Robinson and the MLB. While it is easy to see why that is the case, one unsung hero who helped break her color barrier was Althea Gibson.

While she was not technically the first ever Black tennis player to compete professionally, she was still the first to be allowed the opportunity to play against the best players in the world in one of the best tournaments offered. 

The year was 1950 and then-23-year-old Gibson stepped onto the courts at the U.S. Open Tennis Championships. Her first attempt to break the color barrier occurred one year earlier, in 1949. But, she was denied permission to play in any of the qualifying events for the Open. 

However, with help from Alice Marble, an accomplished player in her own right, she completed the very next year. Marble wrote a letter to the editor of American Lawn Tennis in a critique of U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) members on the fact that Gibson was denied entry, calling their actions bigoted. 

“[If she is good enough] it’s only fair that they meet this challenge on the courts,” Marble wrote

Not only did she break the color barrier at the Open, but she also did the same at Wimbledon. 

Over the next few years of competing professionally, she marked many firsts for Black tennis players. She was the first to win the Good Neighbor Championships, but none of her wins matched up to what she did in 1956.

In 1956, Gibson made history by becoming the first Black person to win the French championships and the first Black person to win any of the four major titles, according to Biography.com

On top of this, in 1957, she won Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals, again being the first to accomplish either of these feats. Even then, her winning ways did not stop, she repeated as the winner in both competitions in 1958. 

Gibson was an all-around athlete, as after she retired from professional play, she toured with the Harlem Globetrotters and played tennis during halftime of their games.

Furthermore, tennis was not the only color barrier she broke. In the early 1960s, she became the first Black woman on the golf tour, according to History.com.

Gibson broke both the color barriers in women’s tennis and golf and did so extremely exceptionally, specifically in tennis. However, she is still not celebrated to the same extent as her counterparts, such as Robinson. 

One player that has recognized the impact and legacy of Gibson is arguably the greatest women’s tennis player of all time: Serena Williams. 

When Williams was chosen to be put on a Wheaties box, becoming the second Black woman tennis player to be on the box, after Gibson, she acknowledged the legacy of the late legend. 

“I am so excited to be on the cover of the next Wheaties box,” Williams said in a statement. “I have dreamt of this since I was a young woman and it’s an honor to join the ranks of some of America’s most decorated athletes. I hope my image on this iconic orange box will inspire the next generation of girls and athletes to dream big.”

In an Instagram post to announce the box, she specifically mentioned what it meant to be the second Black woman in the tennis sphere to be on the box. In the post, she thanked Gibson for her impact on the sport and called her a true icon and legend.