Ashe, Arthur (1943-1993)

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Ashe, Arthur (1943-1993)

Tennis great and social activist Arthur Ashe is memorialized on a famous avenue of his hometown of Richmond, Virginia, by a bronze statue that shows him wielding a tennis racquet in one hand and a book in the other. Children sit at his feet, looking up at him for inspiration. Though the statue represents a storm of controversy, with everyone from racist white Virginians to Ashe's own wife Jeanne calling it inappropriate, it also represents an effort to capture what it was that Arthur Ashe gave to the society in which he lived.

Born well before the days of integration in Richmond, the heart of the segregated south, Ashe learned first-hand the pain caused by racism. He was turned away from the Richmond City Tennis Tournament in 1955 because of his race, and by 1961 he left the south, seeking a wider range of opportunities. He found them at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), where he was the first African American on the Davis Cup team, and then proceeded to a series of "firsts." In 1968, he was the first (and only) African American man to win the United States Open; in 1975 he was the first (and only) African American man to win the men's singles title at Wimbleton. He won 46 other titles during his tennis career, paving the way for other people of color in a sport that still remains largely the domain of white players.

Ashe was a distinguished, if not brilliant tennis player, but it was his performance off the court that ensured his place in history. Like many African Americans raised before integration, Ashe felt that a calm and dignified refusal to give in to oppression was more effective than a radical fight. His moderate politics prompted fellow tennis professional, white woman Billie Jean King, to quip, "I'm blacker than Arthur is." But Ashe felt his responsibility as a successful African American man keenly. He wrote a three volume History of the American Black Athlete, which included an analysis of racism in American sports, and he sponsored and mentored many disadvantaged young African American athletes himself. He also took his fight against racism out into the world. When he was refused entry to a tennis tournament in apartheid South Africa in 1970, Ashe fought hard to be allowed to enter that intensely segregated country. Once there he saw for himself the conditions of Blacks under apartheid, and the quiet moderate became a freedom fighter, even getting arrested at anti-apartheid demonstrations.

In 1979 Ashe was pushed down the path to his most unwilling contribution to his times. He had a heart attack, which ended his tennis career and eventually led, in 1983, to bypass surgery. During surgery, he received blood transfusions, and it is believed those transfusions passed the AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) virus into his blood. Even after he discovered he had AIDS, the intensely private Ashe had no intention of going public with the information. When the tabloid newspaper USA Today discovered the news, however, Ashe had little choice but to make the announcement himself. He was angry at being forced to make his personal life public, but, as he did in every aspect of his life, he turned his personal experience into public service. He became an activist in the fight against AIDS, which he said did not compare to racism as a challenge in his life. It is perhaps indicative of the stigma attached to the disease that Ashe's AIDS is never mentioned without the hastily added disclaimer that he probably contracted it through a blood transfusion. He was a widely respected public figure, however, and his presence in the public eye as a person with AIDS helped to de-stigmatize the disease.

Arthur Ashe died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1993, but his legacy is durable and widespread. A tennis academy in Soweto, South Africa, bears his name, as does a stadium in Queens and a Junior Athlete of the Year program for elementary schools. He helped found the Association of Tennis Professionals, the first player's union. And, only a short time before his death, he was arrested at a demonstration, this time protesting the United States Haitian immigration policy. He was a role model at a time when African Americans desperately needed successful role models. He was a disciplined moderate who was not afraid to take a radical stand.

The statue of Ashe which stands on Monument Avenue in Richmond is, perhaps, a good symbol of the crossroads where Ashe stood in life. The fame of Monument Avenue comes from its long parade of statues of heroes of the Confederacy. Racist whites felt Ashe's statue did not belong there. Proud African Americans, the descendants of slavery, felt that Ashe's statue did not belong there. Ashe's wife Jeanne insists that Ashe himself would have preferred the statue to stand outside an African American Sports Hall of Fame he wished to found. But willingly or not, the statue, like the man, stands in a controversial place in history, in a very public place, where children look up at it.

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

Kallen, Stuart A. Arthur Ashe: Champion of Dreams and Motion. Edina, Minnesota, Abdu and Daughters, 1993.

Lazo, Caroline Evensen. Arthur Ashe. Minneapolis, Lerner Publications, 1999.

Martin, Marvin. Arthur Ashe: Of Tennis and the Human Spirit. New York, Franklin Watts, 1999.

Wright, David K. Arthur Ashe: Breaking the Color Barrier in Tennis. Springfield, New Jersey, Enslow Publishers, 1996.