A portrait of tennis player Arthur Ashe in 1975.
(Source: Associated Press via the Richmond Times-Dispatch)
This is the story of the athlete, scholar, and humanitarian Arthur Ashe.
ARTHUR ASHE - REBEL OF REBELS
Photo of the Arthur Ashe Monument by Jim (rvaphotodude) on Flickr
It was another day of grad school.
I was slinging my bag, double-stepping to the double doors, just trying to make it in time for class to start.
A classmate of mine appeared beside me. We said our usual greetings.
Hey man, how's it going?
His response was casual enough.
It's going great. How was your weekend?
My weekends were quite uneventful. Homework, studying, research, catching up on my shows, the usual.
To my surprise, he decided to strike up a friendly conversation. (I'm usually the one to do this.)
He proceeded to tell me about how he spent his weekend at a conference in Virginia. The group he traveled with took some time to tour Monument Avenue in Richmond.
That's cool, I thought. It sure would be nice if I had a little extra time to visit some of the local sites. I had only been to a meager few since I moved to Appalachia the year prior.
Little did I know, things were about to take another unexpected turn.
You know, they were talking about that Arthur Ashe statue. How could anyone think that was a good place to put it? I mean...right where we honor our great heroes.
The walk from the parking lot to our destination seemed endless now.
The ball was in my court.
I knew about Arthur Ashe. I did my research on the man. I was aware of the ongoing controversy with the Confederate statues scattered across the nation. The aftermath of the White supremacist rally in Charlottesville was still as fresh in my recollection as if it happened yesterday. This was a sensitive subject for sure, and as the co-creator of Black Research Central, I was always ready for a challenge (or so I thought).
Just then, it occurred to me that I should think about this.
Do I unleash the beast? Should I serve him one now or should I wait until the next match up? What about my reputation as a student? Could I really afford to ruin a potential friendship and to fall out of the good graces of my new-found "family"? Was that a risk I was willing to take? This is The South. Not here, not now, I thought.
Alas! My heart said no, but my ego said yes. And so, like any 'ol famished fish, I took the bait. I knew what was on the line and I dug in anyways.
I think a better question to ask is what to do about these Confederate statues. In my opinion, they ought to be labeled in a way that represents their true history and the reason why they were built.
By this time, we were almost at the doors.
He was silent for a minute. I counted the seconds. As we climbed the steps, I could already sense the wheels were turning upstairs.
I held the door for him.
He halfway muttered...
I see your point. I never really saw it that way before.
We entered the building and continued to our classroom in silence.
One thing is for certain: my fellow colleague was not alone in his reasoning.
NPR reported that 15 years after it was built, the statue of Arthur Ashe on the westernmost side of Monument Avenue was still under scrutiny by members of the community. There are many Americans who question the significance of Ashe's statue, and yet, this monument, designed by Paul DiPasquale, has now stood for more than 20 years in that location.
So...who was that guy Arthur Ashe?
Arthur Ashe statue on Monument Avenue
Photo by Phil Riggan
(Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch)
The Legend of Arthur Ashe
Arthur Ashe at the 1975 ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam, Netherlands
Photographer: Rob Bogaerts/Anefo
(Source: National Archives of the Netherlands)
Arthur Ashe (1943-1993) was the only Black man ever to win three Grand Slam titles. He accomplished this by winning the singles title at Wimbledon (on his ninth attempt), the US Open Tennis Championships, and the Australian Open. The only other man of Black African ancestry to win any Grand Slam singles title was France’s Yannick Noah, who won the 1983 French Open.
Ashe retired in 1980.
The Trials of Arthur Ashe
Arthur Ashe was born in Richmond, Virginia on July 10, 1943.
Richmond was a segregated city and it would remain so until 1970, two years after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Charity's son, Khris, recalls of their relationship:
Dr. Johnson gave [Ashe] the technical training he needed on the clay courts. I remember seeing Althea Gibson there and some of the other top Black players that came through to work with Dr. Johnson.
During this time, Johnson's student, Gibson, was the first and only Black competitor on the international level.
Every park in Richmond was closed to the Black community except for one: Brookfield Park, where Arthur Ashe, Sr. was employed as supervisor and caretaker. Other parks in the city had indoor tennis courts. Birch's outdoor courts were not always convenient, but it was just what Ashe needed. It was there that Charity helped Ashe to hammer down the basics at age 7.
He proved to be a brilliant student. Johnson took his game to the next level. Johnson had 10-year old Arthur compete in tournaments against other Black boys at his summer camp in Lynchburg - some of whom were two years older. The camp was part of the Junior Development Program of the American Tennis Association, which Johnson established.
Dr. Johnson said of Ashe:
He was the youngest in the group, and so skinny, he looked like he had rickets...'Ashe was not as good or as natural as many of the others, but he was quick, he had fast eyes, and he always worked harder.'
Arthur Ashe (left) and a fellow student of Johnson’s (probably Biffy)
(Source: Richmond Magazine)
The young Ashe continued to shine.
Arthur Ashe was the first to integrate the Maryland boy's championships.
Before long, he was playing in tournaments across the nation.
Maggie L. Walker High School, which Ashe attended, was first opened in the 1930s as a school for African-Americans. A new institution carries on its name.
He later moved to St. Louis, Missouri his senior year on an invitation from a friend of Johnson's to attend Sumner High School.
Sumner was the first institution of learning west of the Mississippi established for Blacks in 1875. This was a school that had to relocate in the 1880s because parents complained that their children were walking past the city gallows and morgue on their way to school.
In the 1950s, the options were not nearly on par with conditions at the Whites-only schools. Still. the trade-off was more freedom for Ashe to play the sport he loved.
In 1960, Ashe was featured in Sport's Illustrated's "Faces in the Crowd." His skills earned him a full-ride scholarship to the University of California at Los Angeles in 1963.
In 1965, Ashe won the individual NCAA championship and brought the UCLA team to victory. After graduation the following year, Ashe joined the U.S. Army.
In 1966, his biographer, Frank Deford, wrote that Ashe was on track to become 'the best player in the world...at a time that so arbitrarily gives and takes from his race.'
With his claim to fame and great fortune, Ashe endured the weight of a greater responsibility.
Because of his unique status, he is invariably pestered by fawning Negroes whom he does not know and by patronizing Whites keen to display their latent brotherhood now that they have a colored boy right here at the club.
Ashe himself said of his cool and focused demeanor:
A lot of this thinking goes back to my childhood and the unmistakable impression left in Black schoolchildren that there is not much they can do beyond being garbage men or mailmen. You might be a policeman, but never a bank president, mayor or chief of police...you grow up with this mentality. I wanted to establish myself in the tennis world...I wanted to make my mark.
Ashe continued to play in tennis tournaments, and he was discharged from service in 1968, having been a military computer programming instructor with the rank of second lieutenant.
That year marked a major highlight of his career. That highlight was the U.S. Open. As Sports Illustrated's L. Jon Wertheim put it:
The first Black man to enter a major tennis championship became the first Black man to win a major tennis championship.
Around this time, he received a telegram from Major League Baseball legend Jackie Robinson (1919-1972):
Proud of your greatness as a tennis player, prouder of your greatness as a man. Your stand should bridge the gap between races and inspire Black people the world over and also affect the decency of all Americans.
Ashe applied for a visa to play in the 1969 South African Open. The application was denied by the apartheid government of South Africa, which enforced a strict policy of racial segregation. This would not stop him. Ashe continued to apply for visas in the following years. Each time, his application was denied.
In protest, he campaigned for U.S. sanctions against South Africa and the expulsion of the nation from the International Lawn Tennis Federation (now the International Tennis Federation). However, in defense of the individual South African players, he stopped short of forfeiting matches against them.
He thought competing in South Africa in the 1970’s would help set an example for the government about the benefits of integration but later joined boycott supporters after he tried to purchase tickets to a tennis match for some young Africans and was told to use an “Africans only” counter.
Videotaped message Ashe sent to The Connecticut Forum two days before his death
Besides his political activism, Arthur Ashe was committed to addressing the scourge of chronic illnesses and improving the state of public health in America.
In July 1979, Ashe suffered a heart attack while holding a tennis clinic in New York. Ashe was no stranger to heart disease. His mother had heart disease. She passed away at the age of 27, before Ashe truly had a chance to know her. His father had suffered a first heart attack at age 55, and a second, at age 59, just a week before Ashe's own attack. His father would suffer a fatal stroke in 1989.
In 1983, Ashe underwent a second round of heart surgery to correct the previous bypass surgery. After this, he became a national campaign chairman for the American Heart Association, a position he held for over five years.
'A million Americans have heart attacks every year: I was one'
(Source: U.S. National Library of Medicine)
Pictured is an ad of Arthur Ashe promoting heart health. He is holding the book “Medicine for the Layman: Heart Attacks” published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1980.
You can see an another poster created by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services here.
Ashe is believed to have contracted HIV from a blood transfusion he received during his second surgery.
His blood tested positive for HIV upon his admittance to the New York Hospital for brain surgery in September 1988. After a successful operation, it was confirmed that Ashe had full blown AIDS.
At the time, this was no simple matter for anyone in the public spotlight, much less an athlete. NBA superstar Magic Johnson was still at the height of his career and looking forward to the start of another basketball season when he learned that he tested positive for HIV. On November 7, 1991, the same day he announced his diagnosis to the world, Johnson announced his retirement. By then, Ashe was well aware of his condition and for several months afterwards, he tried to keep this fact hidden from the public. (Ashe recalled reading a letter once, suggesting that he could have 'saved' Magic Johnson had he broken the news sooner.)
In his memoir, Days of Grace (1993) Arthur Ashe described his anxiety about the 'ordeal.' He discovered that USA Today received a tip about his infection. They contacted him to confirm the rumor. In response, he sternly defended his right to privacy. But Ashe could hardly sleep that night. He was up before sunrise, scouring the papers for any signs that he had been 'exposed.'
I knew that once that happened, my life and the lives of my family would be changed forever, and almost certainly for the worse...the days - maybe the hours - of my secret were definitely numbered. I had to announce to the world that I, Arthur Ashe, had AIDS.
Ashe announced his illness publicly at the 8th annual International Aids Conference of the International Aids Society on April 8, 1992. The conference was moved from Boston to Amsterdam in the Netherlands in protest against government restrictions (in particular, the U.S. travel ban for people who were HIV-positive, which had been in effect since 1987).
From that day forward, Arthur Ashe began working to educate others about HIV and AIDS.
One of his former colleagues wrote him a letter of encouragement, praising him for his activism.
No one can speak as eloquently as you and Magic to allow the stigma to disperse...
Arthur Ashe founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS (now an endowment) and the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health (AAIUH) at Brooklyn’s SUNY Health Science Center before his death from AIDS-related pneumonia on February 6, 1993.
Regarding the purpose of the AAIUH, he stated:
It became obvious to all of us, in the '60s, that one of the things we were fighting for in the Civil Rights Movement, in addition to legal recognition and equal opportunity, was the right to enjoy some of the other things that attended to people who were White and mainstream, and principally and primarily in that list is healthcare.
The Arthur Ashe Health Center at UCLA
Los Angeles, California
Photo by Wikipedia User Ucla90024
The 'state-of-the-art' Student Health and Wellness Center at Ashe's alma mater was named in his honor.
The Spirit of Arthur Ashe
In 1988, after working with a team of researchers for nearly six years, Ashe published a three-volume book titled A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete. He stated that the book was more important than any tennis titles.
Ashe had this to say on his purpose for writing the series:
As a young sports fan, I idolized Jackie Robinson—as did most Black kids in the late ‘40s and early '50s. But I was also inspired by people like Althea Gibson, Bill Russell, and Sugar Ray Robinson. Reading of their feats helped motivate me to seek a career as a professional athlete.
Ashe remained an active supporter of civil rights causes in later years.
He visited South Africa with other prominent Black figures to observe the shift towards a more inclusive society.
A handcuffed Arthur Ashe is led away from the South African Embassy by police in Washington, D.C., Friday, Jan. 12, 1985. The retired tennis champion and 46 others were arrested near the embassy during their demonstration against apartheid policies of the South African government.
Photo by Lana Harris/AP
(Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch)
On January 11, 1985, he was arrested for protesting outside The Embassy of the Republic of South Africa in the United States during an anti-apartheid rally. He was arrested again on September 9, 1992, outside The White House for protesting the crackdown on Haitian refugees.
Ashe described Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) as 'one of my genuine heroes.' He met Mandela personally in South Africa and in turn, Mandela visited and wrote to him in the United States.
On June 20 1993, Ashe was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then United States President Bill Clinton.
Finally, we return to the statue.
Here is an excerpt from a short article by the New York Times on July 18, 1995, marking the occasion when the Richmond City Council voted “Yes” to the erection of the statue on Monument Avenue:
Today’s vote of 7 to 0 with one abstention followed a seven-hour public hearing that amounted to a searching of the city’s soul. More than 170 people registered to speak, and several wore Confederate garb.
As the casket bearing the body of tennis star Arthur Ashe was carried into the Governor's Mansion in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia, more than 5,000 mourners lined up to pay their respects. Ashe was the first person to lie in state at the mansion since Confederate general Stonewall Jackson in 1863.
But what of significance was his life to the city of Richmond, they ask?
How does the legacy of this man compare with the others who were honored before his time?
Was Arthur Ashe ever deserving of a pedestal at all?
With the odds stacked against him, a Black man dared to do what society told him could not be done.
There are those who choose to view Monument Avenue from the East. Stonewall Jackson's statue was built there first, they say. Then they ask how the statue of Arthur Ashe compliments the statues of those before him.
But, approaching Monument Avenue from the west, Ashe's statue comes first. It is the other monuments, which compliment the statue of Arthur Ashe.
Isn't that a more fitting way for us to approach our history? After all, time does not stand still. The Richmond of today is not the Richmond of Jackson's era.
Today's Richmond, Virginia is not a Richmond in which White men ride horse-drawn carriages while Black men sweep the streets. It is one in which native Virginians of all colors and creeds drive together, live together, and work together. Today's America, too, is not one in which some Americans can claim a monopoly on success, while they deny those same possibilities to others.
Taken on a whole, these monuments, as they now stand, represent an American Richmond. Jackson's statue reminds us of a time when barriers were built. Ashe's statue reminds us of a time when barriers were broken.
We stand in the present. To the east, we see the past. To the west, we see the future. It is no coincidence that the statue of Arthur Ashe, located at the corner of Roseneath and Monument Avenue, is the only monument which faces away from the center of Richmond.
That statue testifies to the adversity of little boys and girls who will grow up in the same American Richmond as little Arthur Ashe, who once stood in its place, facing an uncertain world, gazing towards an uncertain future, and daring to do the impossible. It is the immortal image of that dream Frank Deford alluded to, awake and alive. A dream for all Americans.
It is often that Whites - whether out of condescension or sincerity - say of him: 'There would be no race trouble if all Negroes were like Arthur Ashe.' But the complete response is: there would be no race trouble if all people were like Arthur Ashe.
Ashe's Richmond was a divided Richmond. He may have passed that very spot on Monument Avenue every day, on his way to a segregated tennis court. And each time he did, it could not possibly have occurred to him that one day he would be standing there. But there he stands. In many ways, Richmond remains divided, and yet, Richmond still stands.
That statue testifies to the achievements of men and women who are still standing - men and women who are still breaking barriers today, like Arthur Ashe did.
The statues on Monument Avenue tell the story of two struggles - and yet they are one and the same. The struggle of those who tried to do the impossible and the struggle of those who did the impossible is the story of Richmond, Virginia. In that story of struggle is a story of success.
The story of Arthur Ashe is a story of American success.
That success belongs to everyone.
That success is still achievable today.
Portrait of Former Pro Tennis Player Arthur Ashe
Photo by Francesco Da Vinci/Getty Images
STEM Researcher, Independent Historian, and Co-Founder of Black Research Central
The Arthur Ashe Learning Center - About Arthur Ashe
Richmond Tennis Association - Charity taught Ashe, others by example
Sports Illustrated, August 28, 1966 - Service, But First, A Smile
Sports Illustrated Vault, September 7, 1981 - Arthur Ashe Steps Off The Court To Reveal The Man Behind The Player
Sports Illustrated - 36 Hours With Arthur Ashe at the 1968 U.S. Open
UCLA Social Sciences - The Arthur Ashe Legacy: Wellness
This article was originally posted on our Tumblr blog on September 15, 2017.
It was re-posted here and augmented on August 18, 2019.
View the original post here.
Read more about the life and legacy of Arthur Ashe in Arthur Ashe: Portrait in Motion, a diary sketch of his career on the professional tennis circuit from June 1973 to July 1974, and in his 1981 book Off The Court about his activism on behalf of the Black athletes and the common people of South Africa.
You can see more photos of Arthur Ashe here.
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