Arthur Ashe

02-04-1979 Arthus Ashe

Before Arthur Ashe became a globally recognized tennis player and humanitarian, he was a skinny black kid growing up in Richmond who was not allowed to play on the city’s best courts.

This was the Richmond of the 1950s, when Ashe and other African-American athletes had to stick with their own.

He already had been identified as a player with potential when, in 1958, he became the first African-American to play in the Maryland boys’ championships. He was 15 that year, and it was the first time he played in an integrated competition.

After playing in tournaments around the country during summers for a couple of years, he would come back to Richmond where he could play only black opponents and there were only outdoor tennis courts for blacks.

So rather than develop his skills at home, Ashe moved to St. Louis in the summer of 1960, before his senior year at Maggie L. Walker High School.

“When I decided to leave Richmond,” he wrote in a 1981 autobiography, “I left all that Richmond stood for at the time — its segregation, its conservatism, its parochial thinking, its slow progress toward equality, its lack of opportunity for talented black people. I had no intention then of coming back.”

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Much has changed for athletes in central Virginia since those days, with the Richmond area becoming a wellspring of sorts for African-American athletes who have blossomed and joined the ranks of professionals.

There’s Moses Malone, who grew up in Petersburg and became an NBA legend while playing 21 seasons as a pro; and Willie Lanier, who graduated from Maggie Walker High in 1963 and played 11 seasons in the AFL and NFL.

Both players were elected to their sport’s hall of fame.

Joining Malone in the NBA were two standouts from Virginia Union University: Charles Oakley and Ben Wallace.

And there’s Michael Robinson and Russell Wilson, who grew up in the area and won a Super Bowl together two seasons ago with the Seattle Seahawks.

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Despite those success stories, and many others, Ashe’s experience illustrates what life was like for many young athletes trying to break through before the civil rights movement.

How many of those could have risen to the level Ashe reached if they’d had familial support, focus and opportunities is unknown. What is known is that if you were a young African-American athlete in Richmond in the 1950s, and before then, it meant you weren’t going to get a lot of breaks.

Ashe was born in 1943 and first played tennis at Brookfield Park in North Richmond, where his father, Arthur Sr., was a caretaker.

In 1950, when he was 7, he met Ronald Charity. Charity, one of the best black tennis players in the country at the time and a coach, worked with the youngster for a brief period before introducing him to Dr. Robert Walter Johnson, a black physician in Lynchburg.

Johnson had coached Althea Gibson, the first African-American to win a Grand Slam title and a tennis legend in her own right.

He coached Ashe at his home in the summer before he left for St. Louis.

After two years in St. Louis, where he could play indoors and against the best competition, regardless of race, Ashe headed to the University of California, Los Angeles.

In 1963, Ashe became the first African-American man to be named to a U.S. Davis Cup team, and in 1965 he led UCLA to the NCAA tennis championship.

He graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1966 and joined the U.S. Army.

In 1968, he won the U.S. Open as an amateur and was ranked No. 1 in the world. Ashe won Wimbledon in 1975 as a professional and, in 1992, became the first retired athlete to be named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year.

He died in February 1993 of AIDS-related pneumonia at age 49. He contracted HIV from a blood transfusion during heart surgery.

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Tennis was a springboard for Ashe’s activism and his humanitarian work around the world.

He was arrested several times as he fought apartheid in South Africa and championed the rights of Haitians and other oppressed people. He also advocated for healthy living and helped found the Association of Tennis Professionals.

Even after his death, the relationship between Ashe and Richmond remained uncomfortable.

An effort to rename the Boulevard in his honor failed, the arena that bears his name is run-down, and his statue on Monument Avenue came about only after a brutal debate.

Still, Ashe, who is buried at Woodland Cemetery here, came home often, and many old friends still are around.

And he helped found Virginia Heroes, an organization that introduces local children to role models who are from here and have succeeded. The organization still works actively with kids.

The catalyst for Ashe’s success and the lives he touched was his ability to serve and volley. The shame, many who knew him say, is that in order to perfect those skills Ashe had no choice but to leave Richmond.

“In many ways, what he learned growing up in Richmond, not just from his family but from what was in the psyche of our society at that time ... in terms of race relations, in terms of class and just the whole struggle definitely formed him as a person,” Ashe’s widow, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, said in 2013.

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LLLovio@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6348

Twitter: @LouisLLovio

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