Arthur Robert Ashe (10 July 1943–6 February 1993), athlete and writer, was born in Richmond, the elder of two sons of Arthur Robert Ashe and Mattie Cordell Cunningham Ashe. When he was four, the family moved to a house at the Brook Field playground, Richmond's largest recreational facility for African Americans. Ashe's father was the playground's supervisor, and his mother worked as a waitress. Ashe was only six years old when his mother died at the age of twenty-eight from a stroke caused by undiagnosed hypertensive vascular disease. Ashe's father took primary responsibility for raising the boys and taught them to value dignity, hard work, and self-discipline. In 1955 the elder Ashe married Lorene Kimbrough, who had a son and a daughter.
About a year after his mother's death, Ashe was at the Brook Field tennis courts watching Ronald Charity, a student at nearby Virginia Union University, practice his serve. Charity offered to teach Ashe to play tennis. When Ashe displayed an innate talent for the game, Charity began coaching him in earnest. In 1953, with the endorsement of Ashe's father, Charity arranged for him to spend the summer at the Lynchburg home of Robert Walter Johnson, a physician and famed tennis coach. Johnson was a leader in the American Tennis Association, the African American counterpart of the all-white United States Lawn Tennis Association, but by early in the 1950s his students were competing successfully with whites in tournaments outside the South. Johnson drilled his charges in tennis techniques but also taught them to be unfailingly polite and to play without betraying their emotions, qualities that he considered necessary to overcome the prejudices of whites. Ashe thrived under his tutelage.
In 1955 Ashe won the ATA championship for boys under thirteen, the first of his eleven ATA titles. Gaining entrance to USLTA tournaments was often difficult, but in 1958 he entered and won the Maryland state tournament and was runner-up in the New Jersey and the national boys' championships. Highly ranked nationally among junior players, Ashe was not ranked at all in the Mid-Atlantic Region because he was not permitted to play the region's top white competitors. The regional championship in 1958 was held at the Country Club of Virginia in Richmond, and his entry was rejected, as was the case the following year at the Congressional Country Club in Washington, D.C. In 1960, when the tournament was held in Wheeling, West Virginia, Ashe was allowed to enter and became the first black to win.
Ashe attended Richmond public schools, but in 1960, after three years of high school, he accepted the offer of Richard Hudlin, a tennis coach in Saint Louis, Missouri, to move there for his senior year. In Saint Louis no color line was enforced for local tennis play, the competition was excellent, and indoor courts with fast hardwood surfaces helped Ashe develop a more aggressive game. In November 1960 he became the first African American to win the National Junior Indoor Tennis Tournament. He won his second national title in May 1961 at the National Interscholastic Tournament held at the University of Virginia and then graduated with the highest grades in his high school class. That summer Ashe won the ATA's men's singles championship and teamed with Charity to win the ATA's men's doubles title.
Ashe accepted an athletic scholarship from the University of California at Los Angeles, which had one of the country's top collegiate tennis programs. In 1963 he became the first African American named to the U.S. Davis Cup team. He played on the team through 1970 and again in 1975, 1976, and 1978. Ashe capped his senior year by winning both the singles and doubles intercollegiate championships, as UCLA went on to win the 1965 national collegiate title. When he graduated in June 1966 he was ranked as one of the top amateur players in the world.
Ashe entered the Army as a second lieutenant for a two-year tour of duty early in 1967. He worked as a systems analyst and assistant tennis coach at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, jobs that afforded him the time to compete in tournaments and Davis Cup matches. Ashe initially saw his pioneering rise in the tennis world primarily as a benefit for himself, earning him the same opportunities as white players to sign lucrative contracts for endorsements and make useful business connections. That viewpoint changed after Jefferson Paramore Rogers, a black clergyman and activist, challenged him to speak at his Church of the Redeemer in Washington. Despite army regulations against political oratory, Ashe addressed the congregation in March 1968 on the responsibility of blacks to defend the cause of justice. Afterward he felt a deep satisfaction, realizing that his talent and fame now enabled him to be heard and to act effectively. Less than a week after he won the first U.S. Open on 9 September 1968, Ashe appeared on the CBS television program Face the Nation. Black athletes, he told the interviewers, must champion the causes of their race.
Ashe turned professional in January 1969 after his military service ended. He played an important role in the sometimes-rocky transition to the open era of professional tennis, as the traditional amateur associations, such as the USLTA, reluctantly handed over control of the sport to promoters, agents, and players. As an officer of the Association of Tennis Professionals, he helped organize the professional players' boycott of the Wimbledon championships in 1973. As one of the world's best players, he also contributed significantly to the swift expansion of the game's popularity. Ashe won thirty-three major titles, including the 1970 Australian Open. In 1975 he was the year's top-ranked male player and won the men's singles championship at Wimbledon.
Tennis enabled Ashe to travel the world, and he pondered all that he observed and experienced. He took a special interest in Africa and traveled there both on his own and under the sponsorship of the State Department early in the 1970s. In 1970 he had applied for a visa to compete in the South African Open, a direct challenge to that nation's racial apartheid policies. When the application was rejected, he led a campaign to ban teams representing South Africa from international competition. He finally received a visa in 1973 and promptly won the men's doubles title and advanced to the men's singles final. Afterward he called for greater efforts to assist nonwhite tennis players in South Africa. A year later he started a foundation to train African players, simultaneously declaring that action by African Americans was legitimate and effective in helping to speed the transition from apartheid. In 1977 Ashe announced that he would not play in South Africa again until apartheid was abolished.
Ashe met Jeanne-Marie Moutoussamy, a professional photographer, in 1976. They married on 20 February 1977 and had one daughter, Camera Elizabeth Ashe, who was born on 21 December 1986. Ashe suffered a heart attack on 31 July 1979. He had surgery for a quadruple heart bypass in December and talked optimistically about returning to the tennis tour. Chest pains developed again during a training run, and he announced his retirement from competition on 16 April 1980. In September he was named captain of the Davis Cup team, a post that he held until 1985, the year that he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Asked in 1983 to teach a college class on the history of African American athletes, Ashe discovered that no single source covered the topic. Setting out to remedy that lack, he invested his own money, time, and talent in a massive research project that resulted in an encyclopedic, three-volume compendium entitled A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete (1988). Ashe received an Emmy award for a television documentary based on the book.
In 1981 Ashe served as national chairman of the American Heart Association. Two years later he had another heart-bypass operation, which involved a blood transfusion. In 1988 numbness in his hand and a brain infection sent him again to the hospital, where tests showed that due to the transfusion he had acquired HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Ashe and his family kept his illness a secret, and he continued his busy pace of travel and activism.
Ashe developed closer connections with Virginia and with his hometown during the final years of his life. Despite an official Arthur Ashe Day on 4 February 1966, the prejudice that he had experienced as a youngster had estranged him from Richmond. With the passage of time, however, appreciation for the people and place that had nurtured him overcame the antipathy. Virginia Union University awarded him an honorary degree in 1976, and the Virginia Press Association named him Virginian of the Year in 1982, the same year that the city of Richmond named a new athletic center in his honor. Ashe accepted an honorary doctorate from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1989 and the next year conceived of Virginia Heroes, a program in which successful Virginians served as mentors to troubled schoolchildren.
Early in April 1992 Ashe learned that a national newspaper was planning to reveal that he had AIDS. He immediately called a press conference and announced his illness himself. Although angry at the disrespect for his privacy, Ashe used the event to educate people about the disease. He became an advocate for those suffering from AIDS and established the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS to advance medical research about the disease.
Arthur Robert Ashe died of AIDS-related pneumonia in a hospital in New York City on 6 February 1993. Governor L. Douglas Wilder ordered state flags to fly at half-mast, and thousands of people filed past Ashe's open casket as it lay in state in the Executive Mansion in Richmond. On the day of his funeral, 10 February 1993, the International Olympic Committee posthumously awarded him the Olympic Order. His funeral took place at the Arthur Ashe, Jr., Athletic Center, and he was buried next to his mother's grave in Woodland Cemetery. The board of Virginia Heroes, Incorporated, commissioned a statue designed by sculptor Paul Di Pasquale to honor Ashe in his hometown. The city council's decision to place it on Monument Avenue, hitherto confined to celebrations of eminent Confederates, was so controversial that the statue's unveiling on 10 July 1996 attracted national news coverage. In 1997 the U.S. Tennis Association named its new venue for the U.S. Open in New York the Arthur Ashe Stadium. The numerous organizations that he founded or inspired, such as the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health, the Arthur Ashe Athletic Association, the Arthur Ashe Program in AIDS Care, and Virginia Heroes, ensured that Ashe will be remembered for his service to society as much as for his athletic prowess. In February 2019 Richmond's city council voted to rename a major thoroughfare as Arthur Ashe Boulevard.
Arthur Ashe with Arnold Rampersad, Days of Grace: A Memoir (1993); Current Biography Yearbook (1966): 10–12; Ashe with Clifford George Gewecke Jr., Advantage Ashe (1967); Ashe with Frank Deford, Arthur Ashe: Portrait in Motion (1973); Ashe with Neil Amdur, Off the Court (1981); Sports Illustrated, 16 Sept. 1968, 26–29; Time, 20 Sept. 1968, 82–83; John McPhee, Levels of the Game (1969); Sports Illustrated, 1 Mar. 1971, 62–75; USA Today, 11 July 1996; Richmond Times-Dispatch, 26 Aug. 1997; Richmond newspaper stories and portraits compiled in Brooke Taylor, ed., Arthur Ashe, 1943–1993 (1993); obituaries in Richmond Times-Dispatch, 7, 10, 11 Feb. 1993, New York Times, 8 Feb. 1993, Richmond Free Press, 11–13 Feb. 1993, and Sports Illustrated, 15 Feb. 1993, 12–15.
Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by John T. Kneebone.
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>John T. Kneebone,"Arthur Robert Ashe (1943–1993)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 1998, revised 2019 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.php?b=Ashe_Arthur_Robert, accessed [today's date]).
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