No player overcame more obstacles to become
a champion than Althea Gibson, the first Black person to win at Wimbledon and Forest Hills. Her
entry in the U.S.
Championships of 1950 at Forest Hills was historic, it was the first appearance of an
American Black in that event.
It took seven years for Gibson to work her
way to the championship there, in 1957. Tennis was pretty much a segregated sport in
the U.S. until the American Tennis Association,
the governing body for Black tournaments, prevailed in the U.S.
Tennis Association to permit the ATA female champion, Gibson, to enter Forest
Two years earlier in 1948, Dr.
Reginald Weir, a New York physician, was the first Black male permitted in the USTA
championship, playing in the U.S. Indoor event. Athea's first appearance at Forest
Hills was not only a notable occasion it was nearly a moment of staggering triumph.
Making her historic debut in a 6-2, 6-2 win
over Barbara Knapp, she encountered in the second round third-seeded Louise Brough, the
reigning Wimbledon champion, and came within one game of winning. Recovering from
nerves, Althea led, 1-6, 6-3, 7-6, when providence intervened; a thunderstorm struck
Forest Hills, curtailing the match until the following day, Brough reaffirmed her eminence
by winning three straight games.
During the violent storm, a bolt of
lightning had toppled one of the concrete guardian eagles from the upper reaches of the
stadium. "It may have been an omen that times were changing," Althea
recalled. Born August 25, 1927, in Silver, SC, Gibson a right-hander, grew up in
Harlem. Her family was poor, but she was fortunate in coming to the attention of Dr.
Walter Johnson, a Lynchburg, VA physician who was active in the Black tennis
He became her patron, as he would later be
for Arthur Ashe, the Black champion at Forest Hills (1968) and Wimbledon (1975).
Through Dr. Johnson, Gibson received better instruction and competition, and contacts were
set up with the USTA to inject her into the recognized tennis scene.
Tall (5'11), strong and extremely athletic,
she would have come to prominence earlier, but for segregation. She was 23 when she
first played at Forest Hills, and 30 when she won her first two successive U.S.
Championships, in 1957. During the two years she won Wimbledon, 1957 and 1958, she
was ranked No. 1, in the U.S. and the world.
She was never completely at ease in amateur
tennis for she realized that, despite her success she was still unwelcome at some clubs
where important tournaments were played. It was in doubles that Gibson accomplished
the first Wimbledon Championship by a Black, in 1956.