Althea Gibson lived in Harlem in the 1930s and 1940s. Her family was on welfare. She was a client of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children. She had trouble in school and was often truant and ran away from home frequently.
She also played paddle tennis in public recreation programs. Her talent and interest in the game led her to win tournaments sponsored by the Police Athletic Leagues and the Parks Department. Gibson was offered an opportunity to develop her talents more fully: a wealthy South Carolina businessman opened his home to her and supported her in attending an industrial high school, while studying tennis privately. From 1950, she furthered her education, attending Florida A&M University, where she graduated in 1953. Then, in 1953, she became an athletic instructor at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri.
Gibson became the first African American invited to enter the all-England tournament at Wimbledon, playing there in 1951. She entered other tournaments, though at first winning only minor titles outside the ATA. In 1956, she won the French Open. In the same year, she toured worldwide as a member of a national tennis team supported by the U.S. State Department.
She began winning more tournaments, including at the Wimbledon women’s doubles. In 1957 she won the women’s singles and doubles at Wimbledon. In celebration of this American win — and her achievement as an African American — New York City greeted her with a ticker tape parade. Gibson followed up with a win at Forest Hills in the women’s singles tournament.
In 1958 she again won both Wimbledon titles and repeated the Forest Hills women’s singles win. Her autobiography,” I Always Wanted to Be Somebody”, came out in 1958. In 1959 she turned pro, winning the women’s professional singles title in 1960. She also began playing professional women’s golf and she appeared in several films.
Althea Gibson’s achievement was unique, as the first African American of either sex to break the color bar in national and international tournament tennis at a time when prejudice and racism were far more pervasive in society and sports.