Black History:  Special Delivery!!

Welcome To Black Mail…..where we bring you Black History:  Special Delivery!

Althea Gibson played both tennis and golf competitively!  Many people know about her accomplishments in the sport of tennis.  However, her accomplishments in the sport of golf are lesser-known.  She was the first black athlete in international tennis as well as golf.  Althea Gibson was born on August 25, 1927, in Silver, South Carolina.  Her parents were sharecroppers.  The family moved to Harlem, New York in 1930. There, she began playing paddle tennis through the Police Athletic League. She first picked up tennis by bouncing rubber balls off of a brick wall. She was taught to play the sport by a one-armed tennis coach named Fred Johnson. At the age of 12, in 1939 she won the women’s paddle tennis championship in New York.  It was not until Serena Williams won the U.S. National Title in 1999 and Venus Williams won Wimbledon in 2000 that black women would experience success at the level achieved by Gibson.

Recognizing her talent, neighbors donated money to pay for her membership at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club.  Gibson won her first tournament in 1941, the American Tennis Association’s New York State Championship.  Founded in 1916, the American Tennis Association, was a league for black tennis players. She would go on to win girls’ division titles in 1944 and 1945.  She lost in 1946.  However starting in 1947, she won ten straight titles in a row.  Mentored by Dr. Walter Johnson, Gibson was able to enter important competitions sponsored by the United States Tennis Association (USTA).  She was the first black woman and the second black athlete to compete in the USTA’s Indoor Championship in 1949.  In the same year, she also earned an athletic scholarship to Florida A & M University. 

In 1950 she was the first black tennis player to compete in what is now the U.S. Open. She lost the match, but the following year she was successful in winning her first international title at the Caribbean Championship in Jamaica in 1951.  She continued playing tennis with much success following her graduation from college.  She also worked as a physical education teacher at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. Gibson won 11 Grand Slams before she retired from tennis in 1958 and was one of the most accomplished female athletes of her time.  Even with the success of her tennis career, she struggled financially due to tennis being an amateur sport. It wasn’t until 1968 that players started being paid. Former, New Yorker mayor and friend of Gibson, David Dinkins said, “If she had been a half-step later (in her tennis career), she would have been a multimillionaire,  Loved ones helped to support her financially.  She also recorded several records and toured with the Harlem Globetrotters, playing tennis before their games. 

At the age of 37, in 1963, she became the first black woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour.  During her time as a college student, she took a golf class and the skills stayed with her.  She broke several course records in individual rounds during several tournaments.  Her highest ranking on the tour was 27th in 1966.  Her most successful tournament finish was when she tied for second place in the 1970 Buick Open. She played in 171 tournaments on the LPGA tour.  She never won a tournament.  The words of sportswriter, Ana Alvarez are a wonderful reflection on Gibson’s golf career. 

The brilliance of her golf career was not based on her results, though. During a time when racial tensions were boiling and when golf courses routinely discriminated against people of color, Gibson made a statement that people’s prejudices wouldn’t stop her from pursuing her athletic endeavors.”

As expected she faced discrimination and racism and was asked not to compete in some tournaments due to her race.  LPGA tour leadership was supportive of Gibson and other black players that would follow her.  There were times when “tournaments” would be switched to “invitationals” to eliminate Gibson from play.  The LPGA took the stance that, We all play, or we all stay way.”

During her golf career, Gibson earned $19,250.25.  She was one of the LPGA’s top 50 money winners for 5 years.  She supplemented her income through sponsorship deals and the support of her first husband William Darben.  She ended her golf career in 1977 after being offered employment as a tennis pro near her home.  Gibson was hired as the state commissioner of athletics in New Jersey. She held the post for 10 years. She then served on the state athletics control board until 1988, and the governor’s council on physical fitness until 1992. Her layoff from the council caused financial hardship and Gibson also began o experience health challenges. Struggling to support herself on a fixed income of social security payments, Gibson began to isolate herself, not wanting people to witness the hardships she was experiencing. In 1996 a fundraising campaign was launched bringing in donations from around the world.

Seriously ill for several years, Gibson died on September 28, 2003, of respiratory failure, in East Orange New Jersey at the age of seventy-six.

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