Released last month, the 36th stamp in the long-running Black Heritage series honors trailblazing tennis star Althea Gibson. The stamp features a portrait by artist Kadir Nelson that is based on a photograph—taken at Wimbledon—of the tall and lean Gibson bending down to hit a low volley. By capturing her in action, Nelson emphasized Gibson’s extraordinary grace and athleticism.
The rest of her story is as unique as it is inspiring.
Gibson was born in Silver, South Carolina, on August 25, 1927. As a young child, she was sent to New York City to live with her aunt Sally. Gibson’s parents, Annie and Daniel, eventually migrated north as well, settling in an apartment on West 143rd Street in Harlem. She learned tennis at Harlem’s Cosmopolitan Club, a hub for black tennis players. By the mid-1940s, Gibson was competing at the women’s level.
In 1950, the United States Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) accepted Gibson’s application to play in that summer’s United States Championships (now known as the U.S. Open) in Forest Hills, New York. Gibson, the first African American ever to enter that tournament, advanced to the second round. In 1951, she once again made history, becoming the first black player to enter Wimbledon.
In 1956, Gibson captured the French Championships (now known as the French Open) in Paris and became the first African American of either gender to win one of the four major singles tournaments. Gibson also teamed up with Angela Buxton to win the doubles crown.
Gibson earned a measure of stardom in the midst of the civil rights movement. She achieved perhaps the most famous victory of her career on July 6, 1957, prevailing in the Wimbledon final in straight sets. That September, Gibson cruised to victory in the final of the U.S. Championships to win the tournament for the first time.
In 1958, she successfully defended her titles both at Wimbledon and at the U.S. Championships. She turned professional soon after, ending her amateur career with five major singles titles and six major doubles titles.
In 1971, Gibson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She later worked in athletics for the state of New Jersey, where she made her home. Gibson died on September 28, 2003, at the age of 76.
“I know I’ve managed to be somebody,” Gibson wrote in her autobiography. “That’s what I always wanted. I’m Althea Gibson, the tennis champion.”
The Althea Gibson Forever® stamp is now available online, by calling 800-STAMP24 (800-782-6724), and at Post Offices around the country. Add it to your collection today!