Althea Neale Gibson was an African American tennis player who set many milestones not only in the United States but also internationally.
Before the 1950s, it was impossible for Blacks to mix with whites and compete in the world of tennis. During those times, racial segregation was not only part of society, but also of its legal system. Nonetheless, the Black community established its own tennis association called the ATA (American Tennis Association), and in 1941, Gibson began competing in their tournaments.
Gibson’s success at ATA tournaments caught the attention of Robert Walter Johnson, a physician from Lynchburg, Virginia, who was an active member of the African-American tennis community. He gave her advanced mentoring and helped her to qualify for and compete in major competitions, including the United States National Championships (US Open). For African-Americans, this feat seemed impossible. Although the USTA (United States Tennis Association) rules officially prohibited racial or ethnic discrimination, players had to qualify by accumulating points from sanctioned tournaments; held by whites. However, due to the intense pressure from ATA leaders and former player Alice Marble, Gibson eventually became the first black player to play in the USTA in 1949.
In 1951, she won the Caribbean Championships in Jamaica, her first international title. Then, in 1956, she won the French Championships singles event, which made her the first black athlete to win a Grand Slam tournament. The following year, Queen Elizabeth II handed Althea her prize trophy after winning the Wimbledon singles tournament; a privilege that no other champion had received. In 2019, a statue honoring the pioneering champion, Althea Gibson, was presented on the grounds of the USTA’s Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. It was a historic moment.