When we talk about trailblazers and people who changed the dynamics of their field then Althea Gibson is at the top of the tree.
Born in South Carolina in August 1923, Gibson became the first Black person to win a Grand Slam Tennis tournament when she won the French Open in 1956.
She would go a step better when she won both Wimbledon and the US Open the following year in 1957. And she repeated this feat again the next year, winning both again.
Gibson had actually finished as runner-up in the Australian Open in 1957 – the only Slam to have eluded her in the singles.
She won five doubles Grand Slams – including three Wimbledon titles, one French Open title and one Australian Open title.
By 1958 Althea had retired from professional tennis and by this time had been voted Female Athlete of the Year twice in a row – 1957 and 1958.
Gibson had suffered from racism throughout her career. She felt that even though she broke down the racial barrier and was highly successful, she never got the credit and won the approval that her white counterparts had received.
Sponsorship deals came her way to supplement her income from playing tennis, but as a Black woman, she was not endorsed as well as a white woman would have been.
It was in 1941 after some neighborhood friends came up with a fundraising scheme to finance her and other keen junior tennis players. Althea won her first junior tournament – the ATA (American Tennis Association) in Sugar Hill, Harlem. She would win ten ATA in a row.
It was at just 2 or 3 years old that Althea had moved to Harlem with her parents in 1930 and her three sisters and brother.
In 1953 Althea graduated from Florida University and became a teacher.
She would go into local politics in New Jersey and she would work as a director in a high position which at the time was not open to many Black women.
It was in 1964 that Gibson took up Golf and joined the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association). She would become the first the Black woman to go on tour.
Althea had no children and was married on two occasions. In around the late 1980s, Gibson developed two cerebral hemorrhages, and had a stroke in 1992.
After this stroke she became financially broke and decided to request some money from the tennis authorities. She was rejected. However, it was through her former doubles partner Angela Bupin, that she was able to raise over $1million to pay for her rent and medical bills.
Gibson suffered a heart-attack in early 2003, but by the September of that year, she succumbed via respiratory complications and a severe bladder infection.
She was 76 but what a woman and what an inspiration.
Gibson is regarded as one of the greatest Tennis players of all time and an inspiration to Black Tennis players around the world over the years, and both Serena and Venus Williams have sighted Gibson as one of their role models.
Chris Emanuel Bailey