More people might know Arthur Ashe as a civil rights trailblazer on the U.S. Tennis Tour. But Ashe and Venus and Serena Williams were all preceded by Althea Gibson. She became the first African American, male or female, to join the U.S. Tennis Tour on August 22, 1950. That day, she was accepted into the annual championship of the previously all-white United States Lawn Tennis Association in Forest Hills, New York. She would play 11.5 miles and a world away from the Harlem neighborhood where she grew up.

This was only one of the victories on Gibson’s “Play to win” journey into the circle of elite athletes. Once she crashed the color barrier in Forrest Hills, it took her a few years to build up momentum. Five years later, she won the French Open, then won Wimbledon in 1957. She would be the first African-American to win the U.S. Nationals, which was the precursor to the U.S. Open. She won the Open, too, as the woman’s single champion in 1957 and again in 1958.

A career full of firsts

Gibson’s momentous tennis career included 11 total Grand Slam titles, counting singles, doubles, and mixed doubles. She died in 2003 at age 76, but not before becoming the first black player on the women’s golf tour and getting elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971. But when Gibson first tried to enter a USTA tournament, four-time winner Forest Hills winner Alice Marble had to pave the way. Marble wrote a letter to the editor of American Lawn Tennis magazine condemning the sport’s “bigotry” and saying if Gibson was such an issue for tour players, “it’s only fair that they meet this challenge on the courts.” Fittingly, instead of that isolated show of support in 1950, in 2018 the USTA board supported Gibson fully. It voted unanimously to erect a statue of Gibson at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York, where the U.S. Open is played. Billie Jean King took the occasion to remind the world that Gibson was a pioneer for women, too. “Althea was a tremendous influence on my life & all those who followed in her trailblazing footsteps,” she tweeted.