It was the 1950s. Tennis’ Open Era had yet to begin – meaning women weren’t being paid for playing tennis – and almost all the country was segregated. But Gibson was undeterred, and in 1950 she became the first African-American to compete in the U.S. National Championships, the precursor to the U.S. Open. She broke the color barrier in tennis, three years after Jackie Robinson did the same in baseball.
Now, her accomplishments are finally being recognized on a large scale. The U.S. Open will unveil a sculpture of Gibson on Monday, the first day of the 2019 tournament. It will stand just outside Arthur Ashe Stadium on the grounds of the US Tennis Association Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York.
“Althea Gibson’s talent, strength and unrelenting desire to achieve made her a great champion,” said Patrick Galbraith, USTA president and chairman of the board, in a statement. “She made tennis a better place, by opening doors and opening minds, doing so with grace and dignity. She is receiving a recognition she richly deserves.”
The sculpture of Gibson is a bust of the tennis legend rising from a granite block. It was created by sculptor Eric Goulder and weighs more than 18 tons.
“It’s about time,” Angela Buxton, Gibson’s former doubles partner, told The Undefeated about the sculpture. “Althea, with her two ticker-tape parades, still wasn’t allowed into a hotel where the whites sleep or a water fountain to drink where whites drink, but she helped to break that down.”
Gibson was the first black tennis player to win a grand slam, which she accomplished in 1956 at the French Open. Just a year later, she won the U.S. Open, taking home the trophy in both 1957 and 1958.
A year after she desegregated the U.S. Open, she did the same at Wimbledon. She eventually won that competition too, also in 1957 and 1958 – the first black tennis player to do so.
If that wasn’t enough to show her greatness, she also won three straight doubles titles there: 1956, 1957 and 1958.
Including her doubles titles, Gibson won 11 grand slams, more than Arthur Ashe, who has a whole stadium named after him.
Gibson retired in 1958, but she found ways to stay busy. She had a short golfing career, becoming the first black golfer in the Ladies Professional Golf Association in 1963. She also released a solo album of songs, wrote a memoir and appeared in the film “Horse Soldiers” with John Wayne.
She died in 2003, at the age of 76.