Arthur Ashe was the first African-American to compete at the highest level of professional tennis. After an early retirement due to heart surgery, Ashe used his sports profile and legendary poise to promote human rights, education, and public health.
He was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1943. After his mother’s death in 1950, Ashe lived with his father, who worked as a handyman and salaried caretaker-Special Policeman for Richmond’s recreation department. The Ashes lived in the caretaker’s cottage on the grounds of 18-acre Brookfield Park, Richmond’s largest blacks-only public playground, which had four tennis courts. Arthur’s skill was soon evident.
He began playing tennis at age 6; at 17, he won the National Interscholastics, the first US Lawn Tennis Association national title won by an African American in the South. The University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) awarded him a full scholarship.
In 1963 Ashe became the first African American player to win the U.S. Men’s Hard-court championships, and the first to be named to a U.S. Junior Davis Cup team. He became the National College Athletic Association (NCAA) singles and doubles champion, leading UCLA to the NCAA title in 1965. In 1968 Ashe created a tennis program for kids in U.S. inner cities, which eventually grew to 500 chapters supporting some 150,000 young people.
In 1975 Ashe was ranked the number one tennis player in the world. Tragically, by 1979 he had retired from tennis due to a heart attack and subsequent surgery. In the years following, he protested against apartheid in South Africa and called for higher educational standards for all athletes. He spent most of his time dealing quietly with the “real world” through public speaking, teaching, writing, business, and public service. He became active in medical groups dealing with heart disease, and won honors in national and Virginia halls of fame.
Ashe spent six years and $300,000 of his own money to write A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete, a three-volume work published in 1988.
After brain surgery in 1988, he discovered that he had become infected with the AIDS virus from a blood transfusion received in 1983. He established the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS to provide treatment to AIDS patients and to promote AIDS research throughout the world.
Arthur Ashe died on February 6, 1993, in New York City. As Ashe’s body lay in state at the governor’s mansion in Virginia, mourners paid their respects at a memorial service held in New York City and at the funeral at the Ashe Athletic Center in Richmond. In 1996 Ashe’s hometown of Richmond erected a statue in his honor; it was placed on the city’s Monument Avenue, along with those of various heroes of the Confederacy.