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Althea Gibson

Born on August 25, 1927 in the town of Silver in South Carolina, Althea Gibson grew up to become one of the first black athletes to cross the colour line of international tennis and golfing. She was born to Daniel and Annie Gibson who moved to Harlem as part of the Great Migration. Dropping out of school at 13 and fearful of her father’s violent behaviour, she spent some time living in a Catholic protective shelter for abused children. In 1940, a group of her neighbours took up a collection to finance a junior membership and lessons at the Cosmopolitan Tennis Club in Harlem and though she didn’t like tennis at first - thinking it was a sport for weak people - when she entered and won her first tournament in 1941 her opinion changed drastically. “I knew that I was an unusual, talented girl, through the grace of God,” she wrote. “I didn’t need to prove that to myself. I only wanted to prove it to my opponents.”

She gained access to more advanced instruction and more important competitions thanks to the patronage of Walter Johnson, a physician active in the African American tennis community. Althea became the first black player to receive an invitation to the Nationals, and although she (narrowly) lost to Louise Brough her participation received extensive international coverage. She won her first international title in 1951 at the Carribean Championships in Jamaica and later that year she became one of the first black competitors at Wimbledon. Bob Ryland, former coach of the Williams sisters said that "She was one of the greatest players who ever lived. I think she’d beat the Williams sisters.”

She retired from amateur tennis in 1958 after having won 56 national and international singles and doubles titles. In 1960 her first memoir, ‘I Always Wanted to Be Somebody’ was published. After her retirement from the amateur tennis scene, she sought to further her professional tennis career but it was a difficult journey. “When I looked around me, I saw that white tennis players, some of whom I had thrashed on the court, were picking up offers and invitations" she wrote. It became clear that despite her triumphs, the racial barriers were still firmly in place. In 1964 at 37, she became the first African-American woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour but racial discrimination was still a problem. She was one of the LPGA’s top 50 money winners for five years but was still forced to change in her car for competitions as she was banned from the clubhouse. Though Gibson still had to face rampant discrimination whilst alive, her achievements have set the stage for others’ success and her legacy will live on for many, many years to come.

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