Meet… Arthur Ashe

“My potential is more than can be expressed within the bounds of my race or ethnic identity.”

Arthur Ashe may very well be one of the greatest men to ever live, and it is his enduring spirit and unwavering courage that truly embodies the very essence of my senior project. Simply read some of his most famous quotes, and you will understand the wisdom and integrity that he displayed throughout the course of his life. Best known for becoming the first African American to win a men’s Grand Slam title, he used his success in the game of tennis to advocate civil rights and equality not just in the United States, but throughout the world. He worked tirelessly to bring about the end of injustice and inequality, so much so that many criticized him for abandoning his tennis game to champion his causes. In the end, however, he would say, “I don’t want to be remembered for my tennis accomplishments”, and he hasn’t been. He has instead been remembered first and foremost as a conscience leader, humanitarian, educator and, lastly, an incredibly gifted athlete.

Arthur Ashe 2

Born in 1943 in segregated Virginia, Arthur Robert Ashe Jr. began learning tennis at a young age. His tennis prowess was evident early on, and soon he came under the tutelage of Dr. Walter Johnson, the same man who coached the great Althea Gibson. After success in many junior tournaments as a teenager, Ashe was offered a full tennis scholarship to UCLA, one of the best college tennis programs in the country. While at UCLA, his tennis career flourished, and in 1963, he was selected as a member of the United States Davis Cup team, becoming the first African American ever to achieve this honor and represent his country on the international stage. Ashe took great pride in this achievement and would continue to play on the team for many years, a testament to his patriotism and national pride. His prestigious college career ultimately culminated with both an individual and team NCAA Championship in 1965.

Upon graduating, Ashe went on to serve in the military, joining the US Army from 1966-68. While stationed in West Point, New York, Ashe continued his tennis, participating in the Davis Cup and other national tournaments. He even went on to win the US Open in 1968, becoming the first African American man to do so and solidifying his place at the top of the tennis world. It was in 1969, following his military service, that he truly began to establish himself as both a powerful and diligent activist. After noticing that tournament prize money was dwindling significantly in proportion with the rising popularity of the game of tennis, Arthus Ashe, along with several other players, partnered to form what is today known as the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), essentially the men’s professional tennis circuit. Later in the year, Ashe also cofounded the National Junior Tennis League with Charlie Pasarell and Sheridan Snyder, a program that sought to give children the chance to play tennis that might otherwise not have had the opportunity, while also promoting an attention to academics and discipline.

Arthur Ashe 4

That year, Arthur Ashe also expanded his activism beyond the United States’ borders when he applied for a visa to South Africa to play in the South African Open, a prominent tournament. At the time the #1 ranked American player in the world, Ashe was denied entry into South Africa due to racial discrimination laws under Apartheid. In response, he used his denial to take a stand against the racism of South Africa and called for the expulsion of the country from the international tennis tour and Davis Cup play. He continually applied for visas, and was continually rejected, until 1973, when he was finally allowed entry and became the first black tennis player to participate in a South African event. His fight against the injustice of Apartheid would continue for the next two decades, remaining a cause dear to his heart until the end of his life.

Meanwhile, on the court, Arthur’s tennis game continued to thrive. He won the 1970 Australian Open, the second of his three majors, before going on to upset the heavily favored Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final to become the first and only African American to win the men’s championship on the lawns of All England Club. His unprecedented victory would go on to propel him to the #1 ranking in the world, and he remains the only African American man to ever achieve this accomplishment. After enjoying this profound success, Ashe would later go on to suffer from an unexpected heart attack and undergo subsequent heart surgery. It was these heart complications that would prompt him to retire from the game in 1980 with a career record of 818 wins, 260 losses and 51 titles, a career that would eventually put him in the Tennis Hall of Fame.

Arthur Ashe 1

Although he may have ended his playing career, Arthur Ashe’s off-court career and humanitarian efforts flourished. He served as a columnist for the Washington Post, Time Magazine, and Tennis Magazine, a commentator for HBO Sports and ABC Sports, and author of a three volume body of work about African Americans in sports entitled “A Hard Road to Glory”. Additionally, he was appointed captain of the US Davis Cup team, leading the team to two titles in 1981 and 1982, and served as the president of the American Heart Association. Furthermore, he founded numerous charitable organizations, including the National Junior Tennis League, the ABC Cities Tennis Program, the Athlete-Career Connection, and the Safe Passage Foundation. All the while, he continued his hard work in fighting prejudice and inequality in America, as well as Apartheid in South Africa. He was even arrested outside the South African embassy in Washington DC during an anti-apartheid protest in 1985.


It was in 1988, however, the Arthur Ashe’s life was forever changed. While in the hospital for brain surgery, it was revealed that he was HIV-positive, having contracted the virus from a tainted blood transfusion during a second heart surgery in 1983. Wary of public scrutiny and paranoia surrounding the disease at the time, Ashe and his wife chose to keep the diagnosis private, seeking to retain a sense of normalcy and privacy in their lives. He did not publicly announce his diagnosis until 1992, when USA Today contacted him to say that they had on record that he was HIV-positive. Rather than let the newspaper break the story, Ashe held a preemptive press conference on April 8th, 1992, to announce to the world that he had contracted AIDS.

Suddenly, Arthur Ashe had a new cause to champion, and in the final year of his life, he worked tirelessly for AIDS awareness and research. He founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS, which raised money for research into treating, curing and preventing AIDS. He spoke before the U.N. General Assembly on World AIDS day to raise international awareness of the disease, begging delegates for increased funding in research and hoping to prompt them to address AIDS as an important global issue. Ashe continued his dedication to other causes as well, being arrested for protesting outside the White House against US policy toward Haitian refugees and founding the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health, which was dedicated to solving medical problems in urban, low income, minority populations. Lastly, he competed his memoir, “Days of Grace”, only days before his death. Then, on February 6th, 1993, only ten months after announcing to the world that he suffered from the AIDS virus, Arthur Ashe died from AIDS related pneumonia at the age of 49, leaving behind his beloved wife and daughter.


The legacy that Arthur Ashe has left behind is one of courage and perseverance. Throughout his life, he remained dedicated to causes of social justice and humanitarian aid, undaunted by the segregation and oppression he faced as an African American. He lived with the utmost compassion for his fellow humans and spent his life working to implement change in a broken world, from apartheid in South Africa to segregation in the United States. Arthur Ashe was a truly great man, one who left the world a better place than he found it and who accomplished so much in his short life that we can only stand it awe at his incredible dedication and perseverance.


Works Cited:

“Biography – Arthur Ashe Official Website.” Biography – Arthur Ashe Official Website. The Estate of Arthur Ashe, n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2013.

“Life Story of Arthur Ashe.” Arthur Ashe Learning Center, n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2013.

Timeline of the Civil Rights Movement Through Sports

To begin with, a comprehensive timeline of important dates and moments in sports and the civil rights movement-

* points that are bolded and italicized are those that occurred outside sports

1863- The Emancipation Proclamation is issued

1884- Moses Fleetwood Walker integrates professional baseball

1908- Jack Johnson becomes the 1st black heavyweight-boxing champion

1910- Jack Johnson defends his title and defeats Jim Jeffries, who had been deemed the “Great White Hope”

1919- Fritz Pollard begins pro football, goes on to form first all-black team

1923- Jack Trice, an African American Iowa State football player, is trampled to death on field against Minnesota

1936- Jesse Owens wins 4 gold medals at the Berlin Olympics

1938- Joe Louis defeats Max Schmeling

1947- Jackie Robinson integrates the MLB

1948- Armed forces integrated

1950- NBA integrated

1954- Brown vs. Board of Education dismisses “separate but equal”

1955- Montgomery bus boycott

1957- Althea Gibson wins Wimbledon

1957- the Little Rock Nine integrate Arkansas schools

1963- Martin Luther King Jr. gives his “I Have a Dream Speech”

1963- Mississippi State plays the integrated Loyola University in the NCAA tournament after having previously boycotting the tournament in protest of integration

1964- Civil Rights Act passed

1966- Muhammad Ali claims exemption from the Vietnam draft

1966- Bill Russell becomes first black NBA head coach

1966- Texas Western defeats all-white Kentucky in the NCAA basketball championship game with an all-black starting five

1967- Perry Wallace integrates SEC basketball

1968- Tommie Smith and John Carlos launch black power salute at the Mexico City Olympics

1970- USC defeats Alabama behind Sam Cunningham’s amazing game; the next year Alabama integrates its football team

1975- Frank Robinson becomes 1st black MLB manager

1975- Arthur Ashe wins Wimbledon

1989- Art Shell becomes the 1st black head coach in the NFL since Fritz Pollard

2008- Barack Obama becomes the first African American president of the United States

The Results Are In!

One of the goals of my project is to educate my peers on the full extent of the civil rights movement, particularly its place in sports. Because of this, I recently conducted a survey across grades 9 through 12 at Ashley Hall in order to gauge students’ awareness of key African American athletes from the past century. To be perfectly frank, the results were quite shocking.

The five athletes I chose were Tommie Smith, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, and Arthur Ashe. I wanted to pick some figures who should be relatively well known, such as Robinson and Ashe, and others who might be less recognized, such as Tommie Smith. I then asked if the student had heard of the person, and if so, if they could identify what that person did. Shockingly, some students were unable to identify a single person on this sheet. It looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me.

To be honest, I’m a bit disappointed in our students. I expected nearly everyone to be able to identify Jackie Robinson as the first African American baseball player in the major leagues. In the end, only 61% of students knew what he did, and a majority of these merely said that he was a baseball player and made no mention of his history altering achievement as the first black man in the MLB. Additionally, Arthur Ashe, who was a huge human rights and social activist and for whom the largest tennis stadium in the world is named after, had only been heard of by 8 people, 4 of whom could correctly state that he had been a tennis player.

Not a single person had heard of Tommie Smith, who launched one of the most famous civil rights protests of the 60s, and only one person was able to recognize Joe Louis as a boxer. Similarly, Jesse Owens, one of the greatest Olympians of all time and a groundbreaker for African American rights in our country, was only identified by 5.5% of students, nearly all of whom merely stated that he was a runner.

Overall, I am quite appalled at these figures. Clearly, our students are unaware of some of the greatest athletes and civil rights activists in history. Hopefully throughout the year I will be able to use my project to remedy this problem and educate my peers on the true nature of the civil rights movement.

Here are the percentages from the study:

Tommie Smith:

0% of students had heard of him

0% of students knew what he did

Jesse Owens:

26.7% of students had heard of him

5.5% of students knew what he did*

*The typical response I received was that he was a runner. While this is extremely unspecific, I counted it amongst those who could identify what he did

Jackie Robinson:

81.5% of students had heard of him

61% of students knew what he did*

*The typical response I received was that he was a baseball player, and only very few students specified that he was the 1st African American in the MLB. I counted the students who only said he was in baseball amongst those who could identify what he did

Joe Louis:

3.4% of students had heard of him

.6% of students knew what he did

Arthur Ashe:

5.4% of students had heard of him

2.7% of students knew what he did




The Black List

The Black List is a collection of autobiographical essays from prominent African Americans in various professions, including the business, entertainment, and sports worlds. Although it is not focused on sports, this book did include a significant essay by Serena Williams, the Grand Slam-winning tennis champion who has dominated women’s tennis for the past decade along with her sister Venus.

I read this essay shortly after completing Charging the Net, which examined the role of African Americans in tennis throughout the past century. This book discussed the impact the Williams’ sisters have had on tennis during their careers and mentioned a few instances of racial discrimination they had faced while on tour. By reading Serena’s personal essay, I was able to learn first hand about life as an African American on the predominately white professional tennis circuit.

In her essay, Serena discusses her early years on the professional tour. She writes about how Venus was always her rock and bulwark, and she made life as a black woman in tennis easier because she had already been playing for two years. Serena also describes difficulties in the locker room, a place in which she stood out amongst other players because of her dark skin tone. In an atmosphere that is already frosty due to the ever present competition of the sport, Serena initially felt out of place and excluded by other players during her first few years on tour.

One of the most shocking occurrences took place in Indian Wells, California, at a very prominent tournament that Serena was playing in. Despite the fact that she was one of very few Americans playing in this tournament, she was treated terribly by the fans. When she entered the court for the final against Kim Clijsters, a Belgian, the crowd began booing. This did not stop for the remainder of the match, including when she lifted the championship trophy over her head following her defeat of Clijsters. Serena talks about her bewilderment at being rejected by her fellow Americans in a tournament on her home soil and how she decided that from then on, she would no longer play in the draw there. This incident occurred in 2001, and neither Serena no Venus has yet to play at Indian Wells since then.

Serena’s personal account of the event at Indian Wells was very interesting to read because it differs from other stories I have since read about the incident. Other accounts claim that the crowd was booing because in the previous match, Venus had pulled out of her scheduled semifinal matchup against Serena only minutes before it was set to begin. This angered the crowd, who then decided to take it out on Serena and the rest of the family during the final. However, both Serena and her father have claimed that they heard the word “nigger” and believe that the jeers of the crowd were at least based partially on race. Although we may not know the exact origin of the crowds very verbal displeasure, Serena’s essay proved that it still had a profound effect on her and caused her to doubt herself and her relationship with tennis fans because of her race.

Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis

Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis

by: Cecil Harris and Larryette Kyle-DeBose

Charging the Net traces African-American participation in tennis from the founding of the American Tennis Association (a black tennis league), to Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, to the Williams sisters. Its in depth analysis of tennis throughout the past century focuses on the men and women who have defined the role of African Americans in professional tennis.

This mainly includes Althea Gibson, the first African American to win a Grand Slam, Arthur Ashe, the first African American man to win a Grand Slam, and the Williams sisters, the only Grand Slam winning African Americans currently on tour.This book also details the discrimination and segregation that many blacks faced as they broke down racial barriers and began to compete in what had previously been considered a white sport of wealth and privilege.

Meet… Althea Gibson

“Shaking hands with the Queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus going into downtown Wilmington, North Carolina.”

The first African American to win a Grand Slam, Althea Gibson changed the world of tennis when she finally captured the women’s singles championship at Wimbledon. Never before had a person of color been the champion at the All England Club, a place that is considered to be hallowed ground in the sport of tennis. It is a place steeped in tradition- including a previous tradition of segregation. But those days were banished when Althea lifted the Venus Rosewater Dish above her head and exclaimed in quiet exultation, “At last, at last!”

Born in rural South Carolina and raised in Harlem, Althea displayed her unparalleled athletic prowess at a young age, excelling in basketball, softball, and even boxing. Once she discovered tennis, however, it became clear which sport she wanted to pursue. Her tennis talent was noticed by Buddy Walker, a supervisor on the play streets of Harlem, and he began to practice with her against the wall of a handball court. As she began to improve, she became an honorary member of the Cosmopolitan Club, a Harlem tennis club where influential blacks of the day played their tennis.

During this time, the United States Lawn Tennis Association (now the USTA) was segregated and would not allow a black woman to play, not matter how much she excelled in the sport. Instead, Althea played in the American Tennis Association, a predominantly black organization that gave African Americans an opportunity to play in tournaments when they were denied by the USLTA. From 1947 to 1956, Althea’s dominance in the ATA made her one of its most successful players in history. But for her, and for other African Americans in the tennis world, this was not enough. Althea had proved that she was as good as anyone else in the world. Now she needed to be allowed to prove it by playing in the USLTA.

Members of the ATA began to continually petition the USLTA, advocating on Althea’s behalf. A white tennis star, Alice Marble, wrote an open letter to American Lawn Tennis Magazine, convincing the USLTA to allow Althea to play. These measures, coupled with a changing racial atmosphere, finally compelled the USLTA to permit Althea to play in its events in 1950. Although she initially had a strong showing in their tournaments, it would take a while before she would become a champion.

This breakthrough occurred in 1956, when Althea finally silenced all critics and won the French Open, becoming the first African American, male or female, to win a major title. It wasn’t until she captured the Wimbledon title a year later, however, that Althea proved that she had truly shattered racial barriers by becoming the champion at tennis’s most prestigious event. The excitement surrounding this achievement was palpable back in New York, and Althea was welcomed home with a victory parade. She would then follow up this achievement by capturing the U.S. Open title the same year.

Althea successfully defended her titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open the following year, rising to No. 1 in the world in the process. Yet despite her dominance on the court, she still remained poor off of it, and it was because of these financial difficulties that she retired from the sport after winning the 1958 U.S. Open. Her legacy still remains, however, as a trailblazer for African Americans in a sport that even still today is predominately white. She laid the foundation for black tennis players in years to come. Without Althea Gibson, the sport may still be segregated. Venus and Serena Williams may not have risen to their current dominance of the game. And we would have been deprived of one of the greatest black tennis players of all time.




Harris, Cecil, and Larryette Kyle-DeBose. Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis from Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the Williams Sisters. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2007. Print.

Gibson, Althea. Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Web. 13 Sep. 2012. <>.

“Althea Gibson- “No Matter What Accomplishments You Make…”” Carolina Heart Strings. N.p., 26 June 2011. Web. 13 Sept. 2012.