Althea Gibson, a sharecropper’s daughter, entered the world of sports when segregation severely limited opportunities for African Americans. She eventually became the first black athlete to cross the color line of international tennis and golf.
Althea Gibson was born on August 25, 1927, to Daniel and Annie Bell Gibson, sharecroppers on a cotton farm near Silver, South Carolina. In 1930 the family moved to Harlem where Gibson’s younger siblings were born. While growing up in Harlem, Gibson played paddle tennis on a section of 143rd Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues that was barricaded during the day so neighborhood children could participate in organized sports under the supervision of the Police Athletic League. Gibson became proficient in paddle tennis, and by 1939, at the age of twelve, she won the New York City, New York women’s paddle tennis championship.
The following year, a group of Gibson’s neighbors took up a collection to finance her junior membership at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club in Harlem. In 1941 Gibson entered and won her first tournament, the American Tennis Association’s New York State Championship. She later won the ATA national championship in the girls’ division in 1944 and 1945 and after losing the women’s championship final in 1946, she won the first of ten straight titles beginning in 1947.
Gibson’s success drew the attention of Dr. Walter Johnson, a physician from Lynchburg, Virginia, who was active in the national black tennis community. He mentored her and helped her gain important competitions with the United States Tennis Association (USTA). In 1949 she became the first black woman and the second black athlete (after Reginald Weir) to play in the USTA’s National Indoor Championship. Later that year, she earned a full athletic scholarship at Florida A&M University.
In 1950 Gibson became the first black player to compete in the United States National Championships (now the U.S. Open) at Forest Hills, New York. Although she lost narrowly to Louise Brough, the reigning