Althea Gibson Sweetrocks Inspiring Woman
Althea Neale Gibson was an American tennis player and professional golfer, and one of the first Black athletes to cross the color line of international tennis. In 1956, she became the first African American to win a Grand Slam title (the French Championships). The following year she won both Wimbledon and the US Nationals (precursor of the US Open), then won both again in 1958, and was voted Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press in both years. In all, she won 11 Grand Slam tournaments, including five singles titles, five doubles titles, and one mixed doubles title. Gibson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. “She is one of the greatest players who ever lived,” said Bob Ryland, a tennis contemporary and former coach of Venus and Serena Williams. “Martina [Navratilova] couldn’t touch her. I think she’d beat the Williams sisters.” In the early 1960s she also became the first Black player to compete on the Women’s Professional Golf Tour.
In 1972 she began running Pepsi Cola’s national mobile tennis project, which brought portable nets and other equipment to underprivileged areas in major cities. She ran multiple other clinics and tennis outreach programs over the next three decades, and coached numerous rising competitors, including Leslie Allen and Zina Garrison. “She pushed me as if I were a pro, not a junior,” wrote Garrison in her 2001 memoir. “I owe the opportunity I received to her.”
In the early 1970s Gibson began directing women’s sports and recreation for the Essex County Parks Commission in New Jersey. In 1976 she was appointed New Jersey’s athletic commissioner, the first woman in the country to hold such a role, but resigned after one year due to lack of autonomy, budgetary oversight, and adequate funding. “I don’t wish to be a figurehead,” she said. In 1977 she challenged incumbent Essex County State Senator Frank J. Dodd in the Democratic primary for his seat. She came in second behind Dodd, but ahead of Assemblyman Eldridge Hawkins. Gibson went on to manage the Department of Recreation in East Orange, New Jersey. She also served on the State Athletic Control Board and became supervisor of the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.
At a time when racism and prejudice were widespread in sports and in society, Gibson was often compared to Jackie Robinson. “Her road to success was a challenging one,” said Billie Jean King, “but I never saw her back down.” “To anyone, she was an inspiration, because of what she was able to do at a time when it was enormously difficult to play tennis at all if you were Black,” said former New York City Mayor David Dinkins. “I am honored to have followed in such great footsteps,” wrote Venus Williams. “Her accomplishments set the stage for my success, and through players like myself and Serena and many others to come, her legacy will live on.”
In early 2003 Gibson survived a heart attack, but died on September 28, 2003, at the age of 76 from complications following respiratory and bladder infections.
Thank you Althea Gibson (#AltheaGibson) for being an Inspiring Woman!
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