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Althea Gibson

"why Not Now?"

Tennis had changed Gibson, giving her an outlet for her energy. When she was just starting out, Gibson didn't know how to channel her feistiness. Nana Davis, who beat Gibson in the all-black American Tennis Association (ATA) national girls final, recalled in an interview with Time magazine that Gibson was "a very crude creature," seemingly more interested in a fight than a win. But every loss made her work even more intently on her game.

In 1946, while playing a women's singles competition at Wilberforce College in Ohio, Gibson caught the eye of two surgeons active in the ATA. Hubert Eaton of Wilmington, North Carolina, and Robert W. Johnson of Lynchburg, Virginia offered to provide her with room, board, and an education at no charge. She would spend the school months in Wilmington, and the summer with Johnson for more intensive tennis lessons. But Gibson balked. She never liked school and saw little appeal in returning to high school at age 19. If not for a man she had met during her job at the New School, she might have bypassed this opportunity. Sugar Ray Robinson, a rising boxing star en route to world championship status, and his wife Edna, who had befriended young Gibson during her Harlem days, urged the young champion to jump at the chance to better herself. And jump she did.

In 1947 Gibson won the first of ten consecutive ATA national championships. Two years later she graduated among the top ten in her class at Williston Industrial High School in Wilmington and accepted a scholarship from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College in Tallahassee. Between 1944 and 1950, Gibson took the New York state championship six times. There was no question of Gibson's ATA dominance. There was nowhere else for Gibson to go but crash through the formidable wall of racism.


1927 Born August 25 in Silver, South Carolina
1930 Moves to New York City
1941 Begins lessons at Harlem's Cosmopolitan Club
1942 Enters and wins her first tournament, sponsored by the all-black American Tennis Association (ATA)
1946 Moves to Wilmington, North Carolina, to work on her tennis game and enroll in high school
1949 Finishes tenth in her high school class; accepts tennis scholarship to Florida A&M University in Tallahassee
1950 Enters her first outdoor United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) tournaments; plays in the U.S. National Tennis Championships at Forest Hills
1951 Competes in the All-England Tennis Championships at Wimbledon
1953 Graduates from Florida A&M moves to Jefferson City, Missouri
1954 Works with coach Sydney Llewellyn
1955-56 Travels throughout Southeast Asia on a U.S. State Department-sponsored goodwill tour
1959 Releases soloist album; appears in the film The Horse Soldiers
1960 Tours with the Harlem Globetrotters playing exhibition tennis
1964 Launches her professional golf career
1965 Marries businessman Will A. Darben
1971 Retires from professional golf
1975 Becomes manager of the East Orange, New Jersey, Department of Recreation
1977 Runs for New Jersey State Senate; loses three-way Democratic primary in Essex County

Awards and Accomplishments

1944-45 American Tennis Association (ATA) junior champion
1947-56 ATA singles champion
1948-50, 1952-55 ATA mixed doubles champion
1949 Eastern Indoor Championships quarter-finalist and first black to play in a USLTA-sanctioned event
1956 French Open singles and doubles champion; Wimbledon doubles champion
1957 U.S. Clay Court singles and doubles champion; Australian doubles champion; Wimbledon singles and doubles champion; U.S. singles and mixed doubles champion; U.S. Wightman Cup team member
1957-58 Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year
1958 Wimbledon singles and doubles champion; U.S. singles champion; U.S. Wightman Cup member
1959 Pan American Games singles gold medalist
1964 First black to earn a Ladies Professional Golf Association card
1971 Inducted into International Tennis Hall of Fame
1980 Inducted into International Women's Sports Hall of Fame
1991 First female recipient of NCAA Theodore Roosevelt Award
2002 Inducted into National Women's Hall of Fame

When The United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA, now the USTA) was founded in 1881, it formally barred blacks from competing in its tournaments. Some Washington, D.C.-area clubs created the ATA in 1916, in response. The ATA today is the oldest African-American sports organization in the country. When Gibson began playing tennis in the 1940s, racial segregation was legal, even institutionalized, in the U.S. and would remain so until 1954. The lanky 5-foot 101/2-inch player had often tried to enter the USLTA national tournaments but to no avail. In 1950 she took the Eastern Grass Court Championships, second place in the National Indoor Championship, and made the quarterfinals in the National Clay Court Championships in Chicago. But the USLTA national championships continued to refuse her application. Finally, Alice Marble, a four-time U.S. Open winner, published an historical editorial in the July 1950 issue of American Lawn Tennis magazine: "If tennis is a game for ladies and gentlemen," Marble wrote, "it's also time we acted a little more like gentlepeople and less like sanctimonious hypocrites.…If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of women players, it's only fair that they should meet that challenge on the courts."

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