Arthur Ashe: The Silent Cry of a Legend
In Society, there are people who feel that in order to be a leader, you have to be loud. There are individuals who feel that in order to have an everlasting impact on the culture; one must be boisterous, rowdy and overly charismatic. What I’ve learned is this notion is not accurate at all. Yes, there are times when personalities such as Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and even Tupac forced the masses to gravitate to their every word. There are also times when the soft spoken manage to influence, educate and receive major respect from generations of people. When we visualize Mother Theresa, she found a way to be a leader and icon without speaking loudly. In America, we have a few positive souls that lead by example. They lead with their actions as opposed to their voices. In the case of Arthur Ashe, he led by breaking barriers, being consistent and most of all, being himself.
When a person’s achievements push the status quo, situations can become very complicated. Look at the life Jackie Robinson had as a result of him being the first African-American Baseball Player in the Major Leagues. Look at what William Henry Lewis, George Gregory, Kenny Washington, Althea Gibson and Jack Johnson endured as they became the first African-American Athletes in various sports. The pressure to represent an entire race, and at the same time literally remain alive is more than we can fathom. When we see athletes, politicians and professionals who are African-American, we know their achievements come in the form of hard work and sacrifice. A few decades ago, it was literally a matter of life and death each time African-American’s traveled and competed. As we take a glimpse at the life of Author Ashe, he faced challenges and circumstances that can’t be ignored as well. Ashe came years after the aforementioned but he still competed in turbulent times during his travels.
Arthur Ashe was the first black player selected to the United States Davis Cup Team and the only black man to ever win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open. Ashe is also the only African-American man to be ranked #1 in the World. In regard to the African-American Culture, these accomplishments are monumental. To provide perspective, no other Black Man has seen the success and victories Ashe garnered in the history of Tennis. By the way, Ashe retired from Tennis in 1980. At any rate, we will revisit his remarkable career later in the post. In order to truly appreciate his journey, let’s take a short trip down memory lane. Arthur Ashe was born in Richmond, Virginia on July 10, 1943. Arthur (Jr.), his brother and father (Author Sr.) suffered a devastating blow when their mother Mattie Cunningham died before Arthur turned 7 years old. Personally, this resonates with me because his mother died at 27 years of age which was the same age that my mother passed. The pain of losing a parent during your childhood years is equivalent to a soldier coming back from war with PTSD. You are never truly the same. With this being said, Arthur and his brother (Johnnie) was raised by their hard working father. In life, we have to continue fighting regardless.
Growing up as an African American youth, the primary sports were Basketball, Football and to a lesser degree, Baseball. Ashe father thought that his physical frame was too slim to play Football. On the other hand, Ashe was a tall kid and ending up maxing out at 6’2. The Ashe Family lived in a community with a black only public playground, basketball court, pool, baseball field and several tennis courts. Arthur Ashe Sr. was a salaried caretaker-Special Policeman for Richmond’s recreation department. This occupation allowed the family to reside in a Cottage in a community with the opportunity to participate in multiple sports and activities. By the age of 7, Arthur Ashe started to play Tennis and he immediately took a serious liking to a sport that Black kids generally didn’t play. Make no mistake about it; Ashe is a pioneer on many levels. At any rate, a student from Virginia Union University spotted Ashe on the tennis court playing and noticed potential. The students name was Ron Charity, who was the best black tennis player in Richmond at the time. He immediately became Arthur’s mentor and taught him the basics of tennis and encouraged him to start entering local tournaments for the experience. Ron Charity introduced Arthur and his family to Dr. Walter Johnson during this time as well. Walter Johnson was a brilliant man (Physician) who founded the Junior Development of American Tennis Association (ATA). Walter Johnson started to coach Ashe during his childhood through his teen years. This was an amazing opportunity for Ashe because Johnson had experience and previously coached Althea Gibson. Althea Gibson was a professional golfer, tennis player and the first black athlete to cross the color line of international tennis. Her story is amazing to say the least. Walter not only taught Ashe how to elevate his tennis skills, he also taught him the value of sportsmanship, awareness and components of society that dealt with race. You should read up on Walter Johnson, he was a special individual that broke many barriers. Arthur Ashe was truly on his way and saw success during his High School years.
In 1958, Ashe became the first Africa- American to play in the Maryland boy’s championship. It was also his first integrated tennis competition. Walter Johnson had prepared Ashe for this day with his physical and psychological teachings. Back in Richmond, Ashe was not allowed to compete against Caucasian youth, segregated indoor tennis courts closed to black players and other challenges African-American’s faced in the early 1960’s. I think people forget that Virginia is still The South and was as racist and segregated as Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama. Ashe was being stagnated until he accepted an offer from Richard Hudlin, a St. Louis teacher, tennis coach and friend of Dr. Johnson. Ashe moved to St. Louis for his senior year in High School where he could compete without the restrictions he faced in Virginia. Ashe lived with Hudlin and his family during his final year in school. Ashe was also granted permission to compete in the previously segregated U. S. Interscholastic tournament. Ashley won the tournament for his school. In 1960 and 1963, Ashe was featured in Sports Illustrated because of his accomplishments. He was the first African American to win the National Junior Indoor tennis title and was awarded a scholarship to UCLA in 1963. At UCLA, Ashe was coached by the legendary J.D. Morgan and as a bonus, was able to practice with one of his idols, Pancho Ganzales, who didn’t live far from the University. While at UCLA, Ashe was ranked the 3rd best player in the NCAA at one point. He also won the NCAA Singles Title, Doubles Title and the NCAA Tennis Championship (1965) A year later; Ashe reached the Australian Championship (1966 & 1967) but lost on both occasions to Roy Emerson. On a quick side note, I’m proud to say that Arthur Ashe is a member of my great fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi being inducted into the Upsilon Chapter. Ashe was also in the ROTC as this assisted in funding his academics at UCLA.
As a stipulation with his ROTC requirements, Ashe joined the United States Army after graduating with a degree in Business Administration. After basic training, Ashe would eventually be commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Adjutant General Corps. He was assigned to the United States Military Academy at West Point where he worked as a data processing. During his time at West Point, Ashe headed the academy’s tennis program. I’m sure this was very exciting for him as his love for the game was strong. He was promoted to 1st lieutenant in 1968 and discharged from the Army in 1969. On another side note, Arthur was scheduled to be shipped to Vietnam but his brother agreed to extend his tour instead. Ashe was relieved of his duty as a direct result of his brother’s decision. Talk about love, sacrifice and belief in your brother. In 1968, Ashe started his legendary run as a tennis player. He won the United States Amateur Championship and the first US Open of the open era, becoming the first black male to capture the title and the only player to have won both the amateur and open national championships in the same year. During this same year, Ashe helped his U.S. Team become the Davis champions in Australia. Ashe was facing the best competition. Late 1969, the U.S won their second consecutive Davis Cup, with Ashe winning both of his singles matches. That same year, Ashe applied for a visa to play in the South African Open but was denied the visa by the African Government. During this time the South African Government was still enforcing racial segregation through apartheid. You have to remember, these were very dangerous and wicked times. Ashe would protest over the years as a result of visa denials. Ashe even advocated for United States sanctions against South Africa as a result of their discrimination. Arthur Ashe was more than a great tennis player.
Over the next few years Ashe won several major titles and was one of the faces of the entire sport globally. He was eventually granted to play in South Africa and competed in a few tournaments. Ashe felt that his presence was very important in regard to progression, integration and to help fight apartheid and racism in South Africa. Ashe had an interesting relationship with South Africa and at some point; he called for South Africa to be expelled from professional tennis circuit and Davis Cup Competition. Ashe started to have health issues in the late 70’s. Ashe married Jeanne Moutoussamy, a photographer and graphic artist he met at a United Negro College Fund benefit. The two adopted a daughter (Camera) a few years later. In 1979, Ashe had heart surgery (family history of heart conditions with both parents) and as I stated earlier, officially retired in 1980. His record was astounding with 818 wins, 260 losses and 51 titles. After retirement, Ashe started writing for Time Magazine and The Washington Post, commentating for ABC Sports, founding the National Junior Tennis League and also serving as the Captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team from 1981-1985. The Arthur Ashe Stadium is the largest Tennis Stadium in the World and is part of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center located in Queens, New York. The US Open is played in this stadium at the end of the tennis calendar year as the final Grand Slam. Arthur Ashe loved tennis and found a way to be involved with sport in some capacity even when his health started to become a major issue. Ashe was elected into the International Tennis Hall of fame in 1985. Ashe was also invested in black progression and politics as well. He was active in civil rights for others. He participated in protest and was arrested before like many of our activist. In 1988, Ashe was hospitalized after experiencing paralysis in his right arm. Ashe had already gone through 2 heart surgeries and this time it was Brain Surgery. During a number of tests, Doctors discovered that Ashe was HIV Positive. It has been reported that Ashe contracted the virus through blood transfusion. The news remained a secret for a short period but Ashe eventually went public in 1992. This was a year after Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive.
Arthur Ashe became one of the biggest supporters of AIDS research, awareness and education. Initially, he was reluctant to share that he was HIV positive but soon after, he became one of the faces of the movement to fight against the disease. Ashe founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS, working to raise awareness about the virus and advocating teaching sex education and safe sex. We have to remember that during this time HIV and AIDS were very new to the American Public. I remember being in High School when Arthur Ashe and Magic Johnson made their announcements. It was very scary and it changed the scope of America. Two months before his death, he founded the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health to help address issues of inadequate health care delivery and was named Sports Illustrated magazine’s Sportsman of the Year. Ashe spent much of his final years writing his memoir Days of Grace. It is said that he finished the manuscript less than a week before he died. Needless to say, Arthur Ashe lived a remarkable life. Arthur Ashe is a trailblazer in American Tennis, especially for African Americans. Arthur Ashe is the reason a lot of African-American kids started to embrace tennis. Arthur Ashe faced racism, segregation and a corrupt system globally and managed to remember the teachings of Dr. Walter Johnson. Arthur remembered the importance of character. Ashe never forgot about Black People and spends years assisting with pushing the culture forward. Ashe remembered to keep his head high in the presence of adversity. Ashe showed that you can make a lot of noise and impact without screaming at the top of your lungs. Arthur Ashe can be used as a case study on how to remain focused regardless of life situations. Ashe endured the death of his mother as a child, racism as a child and still managed to show dignity and humility in his lifetime. As I pay homage to my fraternity brother Author Ashe, I ask you to make no excuses in life and to live your “Best Life” until you reside back to the essence.
Sources: Biography.com, ArthurAshe.org, Wikipedia/Research