WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — Before Serena Williams became a tennis legend or Arthur Ashe made history, there was Althea Gibson, the first African American and African American woman to win a major tennis championship.
“Don’t get it twisited,” says local tennis coach and retired tennis legend, Lenny Simpson. “It was not Arthur Ashe. And that’s what people immediately think. Oh! Arthur Ashe. I know that name. He’s the first African American to win a major championship. No. Wrong, bucko. Althea Gibson.”
A tennis champion in the late 1950’s, Gibson grew up on the streets of Harlem, coming from nothing.
In those days, women were rarely paid to play professionally, and though she won US Opens and Wimbledon Championships, she lived in poverty to play the sport she loved.
Though she was recognized as one of the best players in the league and now one of the best tennis players of all time, she was often excluded from matches on white only courts simply based off the color of her skin.
“Althea, I think has never really gotten her due. Until 2019, finally,” says Simpson.
After decades without closure or recognition for the paths she paved in both the African American community and women’s athletics, the US Open erected a statue in her honor and a documentary detailing her life, her struggles, and her legacy was released.
The documentary was aired for the second time tonight on CBS Sports, and features Lenny Simpson and his group One Love Tennis, a Wilmington team dedicated to introducing tennis to boys and girls regardless of socioeconomic situation.
Simpson, who took lessons from Gibson at five years old, says it’s important to share Althea’s story with his students:
“And for these young ladies here in this town, that are apart of our One Love tennis program, to see the success of Althea Gibson, What she became and whence she came from, having nothing. Those are the impressions that will last forever.”