The Williams Sisters and Wimbledon's First African-American Star

The Williams Sisters and Wimbledon's First African-American Star
Althea Gibson, history's first African-American Wimbledon champion. She won in 1957 and 1958.

For the past decade, there have been only two names synonymous with winning American tennis. And those two names belong to African-American women:

Venus and Serena Williams

Have any two Americans since Chris Evert and Billie Jean King done more to revolutionize the pristine, often stuffy game? When I was playing tennis in the 70’s, the decorum of a tennis tournament was almost the same as Mass on Sunday. Quiet. Polite protestations if you disagreed with a call. Graciousness.

My local tennis pro, the late, great Nancy Dillon, a legend in the Oak Park-River Forest community, taught us all at the River Forest Park District to attack the net, to be aggressive. I don’t recall politeness as the key component of her game. She was the antithesis of what I saw on television. When I watched “Breakfast at Wimbledon,” and the US Open matches,  I really don’t remember any knock-down, drag-out arguments with the judges on the women’s side of Wimbledon. Just the zany, boyish, loud antics of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, which actually made five-hour matches a treat to watch. Other than that, they were “Pong” games writ large in those days.

Slowly, the women’s tournament revolutionized with Martina Navratilova’s sheer physicality and iron will, Steffi Graf’s  one-handed backhand, Monica Seles’ grunts. Slowly, the women’s game got louder and more boisterous. And, to the detriment of American women everywhere, dominated by Europeans. Lindsay Davenport, where are you?

The Williams sisters took their attacking, aggressive style of play that made Serena a Wimbledon champ Saturday morning on Centre Court for the fifth time, after taking Poland’s Agieszka (Aggie) Radwanska 6-1, 5-7, 6-2. Venus has struggled with Sjogren’s Syndome, a fatigue-related illness, which has cramped her later career, but still put the Williams sisters on the map when she won Wimbledon in 2000. Serena followed with her first Wimbledon title the next year.

The formidable Williams sisters with be united in the doubles final, looking for their fifth championship. In the semifinals,  the Williams sisters struggled with their serves in the first set,  but recovered to beat American duo Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond 2-6, 6-1, 6-2.  Venus and Serena will be playing the Czech duo of Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka.

As Serena goes through an awfully long Saturday, it’s worth remembering that Venus and Serena Williams weren’t the only African-American players in all of  the history of tennis. The late, and great Arthur Ashe, who died way too young of AIDS after contracting it from a blood transfusion, was a personal hero of mine. He made his name as the victor in the US Open in 1968 and Wimbledon in 1975, the first African-American male to break through the color line.

But even Ashe, as great as he was, wasn’t the first African American Wimbledon champion. I don’t know how many people remember the late Althea Gibson, the “Jackie Robinson” of women’s tennis, as she is sometimes called. She won Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958, in the middle of the Civil Rights era….post-Plessy vs. Ferguson of 1954, but  pre-Civil Rights Act of 1965. Also, pre-Title IX. And a forgotten hero to the larger community.

Lord, how did she get there?

According to her website,, Gibson was born in Silver, South Carolina on August 25, 1927. She grew up in a poor family in Harlem but caught the attention of a Lynchburg, Virginia doctor, Walter Johnson, who was active in the African American tennis community.

Dr.  Johnson became Althea’s patron and was later known for mentoring Ashe. Through her connection with Johnson, Althea had access to better instruction and competitions. He also connected her to the United States Tennis Association (USTA), opening her up to the tennis scene. She started playing tennis at the Harlem Tennis Club in 1941, winning her first match in 1942 at the age of 15. Later on, she competed at Florida A&M University.

She was the first African American to be named as the Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press in 1957. She was given that honor again the following year. When she won her second U.S. Championship, she went professional.

 Gibson was the first African-American, male or female to win championships the French Open, the United States Open, the Australian Doubles and Wimbledon in the 1950s. Even though she was subject to the segregation that plagued African Americans at the time; she trailblazed across the tennis scene.

In all, she won eleven major titles , including three straight doubles at the French Open in 1956, 1957 and 1958. She was winner of the French Open in 1956, Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958 and the U.S. Open in 1957 and 1958. At the end, she earned international acclaim for winning 56 doubles and singles.

Tennis was a very different game in the ’50’s. There was no prize money (Wimbledon champs now earn $1,000,000 on both the men’s and women’s tournaments). There were no endorsement deals, and no professional tours for women. Those came later, after the United States Tennis Association (USTA), the Virginia Slims and Lipton pro tours, and others were established in the 1970’s.  And unlike Venus and Serena, no clothing lines or personal businesses to supplement their income.

However, they might well look to Gibson as a role model. Gibson was clearly an adventurer and unafraid to risk whatever she felt she had to offer the world. Right after she retired from tennis, she ventured into the entertainment world, releasing an album, “Althea Gibson Sings” in 1959, and appearing in a John Ford movie “The Horse Soldiers” the same year. In the movie, starring John Wayne, William Holden and future soap star Constance Towers, she played Lukey, the loyal maid to Ms. Towers. 

There was one professional sports association available to women at that time….the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA). Gibson decided after retiring from tennis in 1958 to become a golf pro. She became the LPGA’s first African-American member in 1964. Though she competed until 1970, according to Wikipedia sources,  she “did not really establish herself on the pro golf tour and tried to play a few events after 1968 when open tennis started. By that time, she was in her 40s and was too old to beat the younger competition. When she stopped competing, she worked as a tennis instructor.”

Her 50’s brought new opportunities  as she embarked on a career in public service. She became New Jersey’s State Commissioner on Athletics in 1975, and served in several other positions in the New Jersey legislature, including an appointment to the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness.

Married and divorced twice, she had no children.

Her later years brought ill health. Gibson suffered two cerebral hemorraghes and in 1992, a stroke. Broke, living on welfare and unable to pay for rent or medication, she reached out to former doubles partner Angela Buxton to say she was considering suicide. Buxton, according to Wikipedia sources, arranged for a letter to be published in a tennis magazine. The fundraising campaign brought in over $1 million dollars.

Gibson died of natural causes in September, 2003, after  her circulatory system collapsed. 

She is remembered around the world. Gibson has been inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the New Jersey Hall of Fame. In Wilmington, North Carolina, the new tennis center there was named the Althea Gibson Sports Complex. And in 2012, a statue of Gibson was dedicated at a park in New Jersey.

The tennis center in North Carolina must be seen as particularly sweet revenge for Gibson, who once wryly observed that “Shaking hands with the Queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section at the back of the bus in Wilmington, North Carolina”

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