Arthur Ashe wasn’t just a world champion tennis player. In his short 49 years, he left an indelible mark on this world as a civil rights activist, a philanthropist, a humanitarian, and more.
His ability to motivate can still be felt today in the numerous programs and foundations he helped establish. These continue to encourage young people (especially those in the minority and the underprivileged) to learn life skills through education and tennis so they can pursue their own dreams just as he had done.
His story has been an inspiration for generations, but it has been more than a generation since his death. Now is a good time to look again at the life and legacy of Arthur Ashe, a story truly worth repeating.
Arthur Robert Ashe Jr. was born to Arthur Ashe Sr. and Mattie C. Ashe on July 10,1943 in Richmond, Virginia.
Arthur’s first introduction to tennis came at an early age when his father took a caretaker position at Brook Field in 1947, an 18-acre park that included tennis courts. The position came with a house located in the middle of the blacks-only playground. Early on Arthur was a straight A student in school and an avid reader and showed an interest in the sport of tennis.
In 1950, when Arthur was almost 7, he had to endure the tragic death of his mother due to complications from surgery. In that same year, Arthur met one of the best black tennis players in the nation, Ronald Charity. Charity took an interest in Arthur and began working with him on a regular basis, teaching him proper form and strokes.
By the time he was 10 years old, it had become obvious that Arthur had a real talent for tennis but would need a proper coach to continue improving his game. Charity introduced Arthur to Dr. Walter Johnson who at the time was also coaching Althea Gibson, the only African-American who was competing in world tennis at that time. Dr. Johnson would become Arthur’s lifelong coach and mentor.
In 1958, at the age of 15, Arthur became the first African-American to play in the Maryland boys’ championships, his first integrated tennis competition. Unfortunately, though Arthur could travel and participate in competitive tournaments around the country in the summer, during the school year he was limited to black opponents from Richmond on outdoor only tennis courts for blacks.
Just before beginning his senior year in high school, he was sent to St. Louis, Missouri to continue studying and playing tennis, where he encountered many strong tennis opponents. He had already won multiple junior tennis tournaments across the nation. Arthur was making a name for himself around the nation and he was featured in the December 12, 1960 issue of Sports Illustrated as a Face in the Crowd.
Arthur graduated from high school first in his class and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) offered him a full scholarship to attend college there. UCLA had at that time one of the best college tennis programs.
During his college years, Arthur managed to maintain good grades while still pursuing the game of tennis. He was also active in the Upsilon chapter of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity on campus, a predominantly black fraternity dating back to 1911.
While playing at UCLA, he found more recognition among tennis enthusiasts. In 1963, Ashe was named to the US Davis Cup team as its first African-American player. He continued to play on the team until 1970 and returned again to play in 1975, 1976, and 1978.
As a sophomore at UCLA, Arthur was featured again in Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd as an up and coming athlete of some note.
In 1965, in addition to finishing his studies, Arthur had won the individual NCAA championship and had significantly contributed to UCLA’s winning the team NCAA tennis championship.
In 1966, Arthur graduated with a degree in business administration, the first member on his father’s side to graduate from college.
Arthur joined the US Army after graduation and served from 1966 to 1968, eventually reaching the rank of first lieutenant while stationed at West Point in New York. During his time in the army, he continued to play tennis, participating in the Davis Cup and other tournaments.
The year 1968 was a defining one for tennis. The sport had moved from the Amateur Era to the Open Era and tennis players were gaining huge prominence. It was also the year that Arthur created history when he became the first black male to win the first US Open tournament. He is the only player to have won both the amateur and open national championships in the same year. Unfortunately, there was in place a rule that Army regulars as well as players eligible for the Davis Cup had to maintain their amateur status and Ashe had to forfeit the prize money. (This rule was eventually changed.)
Ashe went on to win the Australian Open, the first non-Australian to win the tournament since 1959. It was still a time of disputes, even though the Open Era had begun. As a result, a ban had been imposed and Ashe was unable to play at the French Open or the Wimbledon Grand Slam tournaments.
In 1969, Arthur, with tennis player Charlie Pasarell, and tennis enthusiast Sheridan Snyder, co-founded the National Junior Tennis League, a program designed to expose children to tennis who might not otherwise have opportunities to play while fostering a sense of discipline and attention to academics. Today’s US Tennis Association/National Junior Tennis League program has five hundred chapters running programs for 150 thousand kids.
This was just the first of many programs with which Arthur became involved. Many of them focused on youths, minorities, education, and tennis but as Arthur required, they were not oriented toward producing professional athletes but instead used tennis as a vehicle for teaching life skills.
During the two decades follow 1969, the issue of Apartheid became a central issue of activism for Arthur when all his efforts to apply for a South African visa so he could compete in the South African Open were denied. At the time, South Africa’s government held firmly to the strict policy of racial segregation of Apartheid. Arthur’s number one US ranking made no difference to the South African government.
though he kept applying for visas, the country continued to deny him. In
protest, he campaigned for the expulsion of South Africa from the International
Lawn Tennis Federation and this action was the beginning of his activism
South Africa did eventually grant Arthur a visa in 1973 where he was the first black professional to play in the national championships there. He reached the singles finals and he won the doubles title with Tom Okker.
During Apartheid, Ashe was offered ‘Honorary White’ status in South Africa but he refused and explicitly demanded to be booked as a black man when he visited and eventually played in South Africa.
Arthur Ashe had become one of the most famous tennis players in the early 70s. The sport of tennis was becoming increasingly popular, gaining Arthur growing celebrity status. However, the increased interest in tennis was not reflected in the earnings of tennis players.
In response to this, Arthur partnered with other tennis professionals creating the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) in 1972. The ATP was formed to represent the interests of male tennis pros to give them more control over their earnings and their tournament schedules.
In 1972, Arthur was elected President of ATP.
On July 5, 1975, after defeating Jimmy Connors in four sets to win the Wimbledon singles title, Arthur became the first and only black man to win the most prestigious grass-court tournament. That year he also attained the #1 men’s ranking in the world.
In 1977, Arthur married Jeanne Moutoussamy, a photographer whom he had met in 1976. The marriage ceremony was held at the United Nations chapel in New York and was presided over by Andrew Young, the US ambassador to the UN.
In 1986, Arthur and Jeanne welcomed their daughter, Camera, into the family.
Arthur suffered a heart attack while holding a tennis clinic in New York in 1979 leading to a quadruple-bypass surgery. In 1980, since he continued to suffer chest pains, he decided to retire from tennis with a career record of 818 wins, 260 losses, and 51 titles.
In 1983 Arthur went through a second bypass surgery. Following the operation he received a blood transfusion in order to accelerate his recovery.
In 1988, after feeling numbness in his right hand, he was again hospitalized. Tests showed he had a bacterial infection called toxoplasmosis, most often present in people with HIV. After further testing it was revealed he was indeed HIV positive, the virus that can cause AIDS.
Arthur and Jeanne decided to keep this information private at the time. It was determined that the transfusion he had received after his 1983 surgery had resulted in the diagnosis of HIV.
Retirement from tennis did not mean Arthur was slowing down. He wrote for Time Magazine, the Washington Post, and Tennis Magazine and was a commentator for ABC Sports as well.
In the first year of his retirement, he was appointed captain of the US Davis Cup team. During his leadership, the US won the Davis Cup in 1981 and 1982.
In 1981, he also served as national chairman of the American Heart Association and was the only nonmedical member of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Advisory Council.
In the late 1970s he had become an adviser to Aetna Life & Casualty Company where he represented minority concerns, and later the causes of the sick. He was made a board member in 1982.
He also continued his activism against the South African Apartheid regime. In 1983, along with Harry Belafonte, he founded Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid, working toward raising awareness of Apartheid policies and lobbying for sanctions and embargoes against the South African government.
In January of 1985, he was arrested outside the South African embassy in Washington during an anti-Apartheid protest where he had displayed his strong convictions against Apartheid.
In the early 1980s, Ashe agreed to teach a course at Florida Memorial College, ‘The Black Athlete in Contemporary Society.’ While searching libraries for a book about the history of Black Americans in sports, he was disappointed to find that the most comprehensive text available had been published 20 years before.
Thus, he was inspired to begin work on what was to be a 3-volume book,
’A Hard Road To Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete.' He spent six years and $300,000 of his own money to write the
book which was published in 1988. He also won an Emmy Award for writing a
television version of his work.
Through public speaking, teaching, writing, and public service, Ashe helped develop the ABC Cities Tennis Program, combining tennis and academics as well as the Safe Passage Foundation for poor children, which includes tennis training, the Athletes Career Connection, the Black Tennis & Sports Foundation to assist minority athletes, and 15-Love, a substance abuse program.
In 1985, Arthur Ashe was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI.
In 1991, Arthur was given the opportunity to witness the change his tireless work against Apartheid had contributed when he returned to South Africa as a part of a 31 member delegation. He was able to observe the political changes in the country as it began repealing Apartheid legislation and moving toward integration.
Arthur's commitment and efforts toward this cause were such that when Nelson Mandela, a political prisoner of the South African government for 27 years, was first set free and was asked whom in the US he wished to have visit, he said, “How about Arthur Ashe?”
Arthur’s popularity, and his stance on Apartheid, made him a perfect fit for the U.S. State Department’s Goodwill Ambassador to Africa. Ashe was sent to several African countries to visit with heads of states, students, and vocal leaders.
Ashe was elected to the UCLA Sports Hall of Fame, the
Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, and the Eastern Tennis Association Hall of Fame.
He became the first person named to the U.S. Professional Tennis Association
Hall of Fame.
Ashe was contacted in 1992 by USA Today about reports of his illness, which he had been able to keep secret up to that time. But instead of replying to the paper, he and his wife held a press conference on April 8, 1992 to announce that he had contracted AIDS. The amount of publicity and attention which ensued gave Arthur the chance to raise awareness about AIDS and its victims.
In 1993, the last year of his life, he founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS, which raised money for research into treating, curing, and preventing AIDS, the end goal being the eradication of the disease.
In 1993 he also spoke before the UN General Assembly on World AIDS day pleading with the delegates to increase funding for AIDS research and discussing the need to address AIDS as a world issue in anticipation of the global spread of the disease in coming years.
In 1992, Ashe was arrested during a protest against US policy toward Haitian refugees outside the White House.
Two months before his death he founded the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban health to help address issues of inadequate health care delivery to urban minority populations.
In December of 1992, Arthur Ashe was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, an honor bestowed upon “the athlete or team whose performance that year most embodies the spirit of sportsmanship and achievement,” undoubtedly due to his incessant work and indefatigable spirit.
Arthur Ashe died of AIDS- related pneumonia on February 6, 1993, in New York City. His body lay in state at the governor’s mansion in Virginia. Mourners paid their respects at the funeral at the Ashe Athletic Center in Richmond and at a memorial service held in New York City. Ashe was the first person to lie in state at the mansion since the Confederate general Stonewall Jackson in 1863.
More than 5,000 people lined up to walk past the casket. His funeral was attended by nearly 6,000 people including New York City mayor David Dinkins, Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder, Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown and Rainbow Coalition chairman Jesse Jackson. Andrew Young, the former U.N. ambassador and Atlanta mayor who had married Arthur, delivered the eulogy.
He had also dedicated time in his last few months to writing “Days of Grace,” his memoir that he finished only days before his death.
Arthur Ashe’s legacy reflects his philanthropic, humanitarian, civic, and activist endeavors. His contributions to sports and tennis, education in the form of scholarships and schools, service, and health and wellness continue to help and inspire the young and old today.
"Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can."
"From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life."
"The ideal attitude is to be physically loose and mentally tight."
"Trust has to be earned, and should come only after the passage of time."
"A wise person decides slowly but abides by these decisions."
"When bright young minds can't afford college, America pays the price."
"I guess I started too early because I just thought it was something fun to do." "Later, I discovered there was a lot of work to being good in tennis."
"I have always drawn strength from being close to home."
“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”
“One important key to success is self-confidence. An important key to self-confidence is preparation.”
“If I were to say, "God, why me?" about the bad things, then I should have said, "God, why me?" about the good things that happened in my life.”
“Success is a journey not a destination. The doing is usually more important than the outcome. Not everyone can be Number 1.”
“Regardless of how you feel inside, always try to look like a winner. Even if you’re behind, a sustained look of control and confidence can give you a mental edge that results in victory.”
“The best way to judge a life is to ask yourself, "Did I make the best use of the time I had?”
“Racism is not an excuse to not do the best you can.”
“The ideal attitude is to be physically loose and mentally tight.”
“We blacks look for leadership in men and women of such youth and inexperience, as well as poverty of education and character, that it is no wonder that we sometimes seem rudderless.... We see basketball players and pop singers as possible role models, when nothing could be further, in most cases, from their capacities.”
“Believe me, most people resist change, even when it promises to be for the better. But change will come, and if you acknowledge this simple but indisputable fact of life, and understand that you must adjust to all change, then you will have a head start.”