Rattler Legend #1 : Althea Gibson (1949-1953)

This Rattler grew up in Harlem during the Great Depression, yet went on to destroy two huge color barriers in professional sports that depressed the likes of a mostly-segregated America. Black women will forever be able to participate in the professional tennis and golf tours because of Althea Gibson.

Born to sharecroppers in South Carolina in 1927, Gibson’s impoverished family moved to New York City three years later. Gibson eventually gained a dislike for school and dropped out of high school.

Her love and energy were fixed in sports. Her first favorite was basketball, then paddle tennis sparked her interest and when a very nice musician gave her a tennis racket, the ultimate match had finally been made. After playing very well in tennis tournaments in New York City, Gibson caught the eye of a tennis-playing doctor. He took her into his family, thus moving her to North Carolina in 1946 where Gibson started seriously working on her tennis game.

In 1947, Gibson won the first of her 10 consecutive American Tennis Association National Championships.

She even went back to high school and graduated in 1949.

That same year she enrolled at Florida A&M University.

The following two years, with a Rattler card in her pouch, this trailblazer made history.

After years of lobbying by the all-black ATA, the 23-year-old Gibson became the first black to play in the United States National Championships in 1950. In 1951 she became the first black to compete in Wimbledon.

In 1956, Gibson again made history, becoming the first black to win a major when she won the French Championships. She also became the first black to win Wimbledon by winning the first of her three straight doubles titles.

Gibson became the first black to win a singles’ title at two of the most prestigious tournaments in the world. She won both the United States National Championships and Wimbledon in 1957. Gibson earned both titles again in 1958. As a result, Gibson was voted in 1957 and 1958 by the Associated Press as its Female of the Year, an honor that had never before been received by a black woman.

Before Gibson became the first black to play on the LPGA tour in a seven-year golf career that began in 1964 and ended in 1971, this powerful but graceful athlete won 11 Grand Slam tennis events.

Gibson is living out the rest of her life in an apartment in East Orange, N.J. Her life is not only precious to the black community in America; it is also extremely precious to the community of people around the world that believes in liberation and integration.

And we strike, strike and strike again!

–compiled by Ibram Rogers