Arthur Ashe, sick tennis champion, drug humanitarian, link and youth advocate, is known worldwide for his athletic achievements. Born in Richmond’s Northside, Arthur began playing the tennis courts at Brook Field, a blacks-only park and playground. His talent quickly came to the attention of leading black coaches. Until his final year of high school, he was educated in Richmond schools. After graduating first in his high school class, he won a full scholarship to UCLA and continued to compete. He served in the Army for four years, and earned the rank of second lieutenant.
Of the sport’s four most prestigious tournaments known as “Grand Slam” titles, he won three: the U.S. Open, Australian Open, and Wimbledon. He won the first U.S. Open in the fall of 1968 and remains the only African American man to do so. A year later he co-founded the National Junior Tennis League. This same year, he applied for a visa to South Africa. The country practiced Apartheid, official, all-encompassing racial segregation, and denied him. He began a lifelong focused activism against Apartheid, even enlisting Harry Belafonte to establish “Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid” in 1985 and later, by taking part in a protest outside the South African Embassy. After bypass surgery in 1983, Ashe received a blood transfusion, and unknowingly contracted human immunodeficiency-virus (HIV). The disease increasingly affected him over the next few years while Ashe continued his humanitarian work. He eventually shared the news of his illness, and established the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS.
Upon his death in 1993, the public was allowed to mourn the loss when his body was displayed at the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond. No figure since Civil War General Stonewall Jackson had been so honored. On July 10, 1996, a monument in Ashe’s honor was erected at 3321 Monument Avenue. Last year, USA Today listed Arthur along with only 24 others as one of the Most Inspiring People of the Last 25 Years.
Ultimately, sports records and even monuments can be shattered. Today, many rising sports stars fill the news with increasingly flashy and outlandish antics that often seem to take precedence over athletic achievement, moral character, and decent manners. Yet the principled poise and humble decorum that Arthur Ashe consistently maintained will continue to stand as examples to all of us, regardless of our backgrounds, age, or interest in sports. Although Ashe faced adversity most of us only imagine, including segregation and a disease in days when ignorance decried the physical ailment as a moral one, he lived with lucid grace, always working to improve the lives and opportunities of others. Arthur Ashe would have been 65 on July 10.
by Cesca Janece Waterfield
In 1999, Ashley became the first and only African American International Chess Grand Master, a title indicating mastery on par with the greatest athletes in history. He lives in Brooklyn and visits Richmond regularly.
“Arthur Ashe is really a giant in my mind. He represented something really wonderful about the human race, in that first of all, he appreciated young people. He also carried himself with such an amazing dignity, so much class. Everyone who met him just thought that he resonated a wonderful elegance and class. On top of that, he represented African Americans in such a great way, always looking to give back. So in just so many ways, he’s a true American hero. Of course in the final chapter of his life, the tragedy of him contracting HIV virus due to tainted blood, the way he wrote about that with the dignity that was his hallmark just shows the amazing quiet strength that he had as a human being. If I could be half the man he was, then I want to strive for that.”
Dr. Robert Screen
Dr. Robert Screen is Head Tennis Coach at Hampton University where he’s coached men’s and women’s teams for 35 seasons. He is considered the most successful African American tennis coach in history. Under Dr. Screen’s guidance, Hampton University became the only Historically Black College/University to win a national tennis title. He has the distinction of being the third coach in the history of Division I tennis to post over 1000 wins. He is currently the Chair of the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders, and has co-authored a textbook used on campuses nationwide.
“I knew Arthur Ashe for a long time. I first met him when he was 11 years old. I was told about him by a friend of ours, Ron Charity who started Ashe playing in Richmond. I met him when he was 11, and started hitting with him. I watched his development throughout high school and college. He went o UCLA. He was just a rare breed of gentleman scholar athlete. He graduated from UCLA with a B average. He was as proud of his graduation from UCLA as he was of becoming the first black male and only black male to have won the US Open Championships and also the first black male to have won Wimbledon. He was just an outstanding spokesperson not only for professional tennis, but for college tennis. He was an excellent college student who graduated with honors. He was just an outstanding human being.
What was different about him as a tennis player was not just his winning and style, but he was an impeccable person on the court in terms of his behavior, none of the kind of stuff that you get today. Never an argument. He didn’t even yell out when he won a point, like these scenes we expect today on the court. He was just a different type of human being.
I have a quote from him. I have this on my desk right now. He said the hardest thing he ever dealt with in life was being black in America. He said pure and true heroism is remarkably sober. It is very undramatic. That’s the way he personified his plight and his victories – undramatic. That to him was true heroism. A lot of what I do comes from things that he taught. His impact certainly had a great deal of power on people like me and people who try to teach that; that sober kind of response to victory. I think he’s had some impact on a player like James Blake. I don’t think what he did and the way he did it will ever be repeated.”
Guy Walton, 48, is a 1982 graduate of Virginia Union University. He has coached VUU’s men’s and women’s tennis teams for seven years. He also works as a tennis instructor for the City of Richmond’s Parks and Recreation.
“[Arthur Ashe taught that] The mind is the greatest investment. He was an advocate of education. He also taught that everybody is equal. Regardless of social-economic background, everybody’s equal. It’s up to you to take advantage of the opportunities that you have to better yourself. That’s what he meant to us. He taught that what you do on the court is how you’re going to live your life off the court. You know, if you can fight for justice on the court, you can fight for justice off the court. Just don’t let situations hold you back. He told us, don’t let your skin color hold you back. Don’t let your religious beliefs hold you back. You’re a person who’s got the same amount of opportunity as the person beside you, white or black, you’re equal, just as this person is. That’s one of the things that he taught us.
I didn’t grow up in Battery Park, but I know the tradition of Battery Park because I played there. We started at Battery Park, and played from 2 o’clock up to 9 o’clock. That’s what we did. Tennis is keeping a lot of young African American people hooked on being physically fit and socially successful. Now we’ve got James Blake, Venus and Serena, Donald Young. We’ve got these kids and they’ve got role models, saying, i f they can make it, I can make it, given the same opportunity. It doesn’t have anything to do with money. Give me a racquet, give me a court, give me a tennis ball, give me a coach, give me the same amount of opportunity. If you can make it, I can make it.”
Manning, 41, is a native Richmonder and a graduate of Virginia Tech. He is founder and president of U-Turns, Inc. a sports performance academy in Richmond. He has achieved state, mid-Atlantic and national rankings as a tennis player. He personally knows several members of the Ashe family. www.U-Turn.org
“For me, I think the word excellent just stands out from every perspective in life; academics, athletics, being a socially conscious person and leader, being a man of faith. I think he was exemplary on all those fronts, and a role model for everyone. The word “role model” has been so watered down, but he was a clear leader on several fronts. I think that’s what stands out for me. He wasn’t superficial. There was a lot of depth. It wasn’t just depth in rhetoric, it was willingness to take a stand on major issues.”
William Boston is an Instructor for the City of Richmond’s Parks and Recreation.
“All that stress he was under, he handled it like a gentleman. He handled it the right way. No matter how negative things got, on the court or off the tennis court, everything he was about was positive. He always reacted like a true individual. And that didn’t have anything to do with tennis. But it helped him with tennis. If you know anything about tennis, you know you’ve got to be positive on the tennis court. Some people call it cocky. But if you’re not positive, you’ve already defeated yourself. He wasn’t like that. That’s one of the things I liked about him.
I was not a tennis guy. I think I knew about Althea Gibson. Once I started playing and realized how popular this guy was, I started looking into him. He was one of my role models. Especially after he got the disease, the way he handled that was absolutely mind boggling. I love the way he handled that.
[Young players] have to be introduced to that kind of moral fiber. They need to be re-introduced to positive black males. They don’t have any role models. If they could use Arthur Ashe for that, it would be fantastic. We’ve got young people out here who don’t know who [Arthur Ashe] is. That just scares me to death.”