Althea Gibson was born August 25, 1927 in the tiny town of Silver, S.C. (pop. 50). A big and active baby (8 pounds plus), she grew into a gangling girl in New York's teeming Harlem district, where her family moved when she was 2. Her father is a garage mechanic; Althea and her three sisters and brother lived in a walk-up tenement on 143rd Street, and Harlem's play streets were the only recreational area they knew. There she learned basketball, her favorite game, and paddle tennis, at which she excelled. It was while she was still at P.S. 136 that her skill at this rudimentary form of tennis, played with wooden paddles and a rubber ball, caught the eye of Buddy Walker, a bandleader and PAL supervisor. He gave her a tennis racket, which she accepted with misgivings, taught her to practice shots against a handball wall and arranged for her to join Harlem's Cosmopolitan Club. Here she learned the finer points of the game. When she was 16 she entered—and won—her first tournament, the New York State Championship of the Negro American Tennis Association. Seven years later, as the perennial champion of Negro women's tennis, she made history by receiving an entry blank to the U.S. National grass court championships at Forest Hills.
Meanwhile—though she still denied it—tennis had become her life. It won her a scholarship at Florida A&M, where she graduated with top honors in 1954, having majored in health and physical education. It won her a job as physical education teacher at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo. It won her, last year, an international tour under State Department sponsorship, the turning point in her tennis career where she finally found herself and fulfilled the promise of her talent.
Shy, intense, grimly determined on the court, Althea is a warm personality to her friends. Her interests outside tennis are few: for relaxation she reads popular novels, goes to the movies. She neither drinks nor smokes, eats sparingly (after tournaments usually an omelet), sings occasionally in her old friend Buddy Walker's nightclub. Her future? "Tennis," she says. "I just want to play tennis, and more tennis."