To the astute observer, there are probably more references to the late, great Arthur Ashe throughout the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, home of the US Open, than to Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic combined. A walk through the grounds of the US Open pays tribute to Ashe in many ways.
There is a plaque honoring Ashe near the South Gate at the Court of Champions, Arthur Ashe Commemorative Gardens, the 24,000-seat Ashe Stadium, a display of mounted photographs of Ashe by Time and Life photographer John Zimmerman, and the seven-minute ’68 Ashe VR (virtual reality) Experience.
The 2018 US Open celebrates Ashe the man, on the 50th anniversary of his US Open victory in 1968.
Arthur Ashe was the ﬁrst black player selected to the United States Davis Cup team, and he was the only African-American man to win three Grand Slam events – Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open. But Ashe was so much more than an accomplished tennis player. He was a humanitarian who spoke out against injustice and preached tolerance and understanding, a spokesman for such public health concerns as HIV/ AIDS and heart disease, an advocate of sports programs for the underserved, a life-long learner, an US Army lieutenant, and, by some accounts, a philosemite who was profoundly inﬂuenced by many Jews.
Raymond Arsenault, the author of a new authoritative, comprehensive 767-page biography, Arthur Ashe: A Life recently spoke with the Magazine about the inﬂuence of Jewish people and history on Ashe. Ashe’s father, a jack of all trades, worked “as a chauffeur, butler and handyman for Charles Gregory, one of Richmond’s most prominent Jewish merchants.” One day, while dropping off Mr. Gregory’s laundry, he struck up a conversation with Mattie Cordell Cunningham.
Several months later, they were married, and soon after, became parents to Arthur, and ﬁve years later, to his brother, Johnnie.
Ashe was born in 1943 and grew up in Richmond, Virginia, in the segregated South. When he was six, his mother died and Ashe and Johnnie were raised by their father, who worked as a handyman and caretaker for Richmond’s recreation department. The Ashes lived in the caretaker’s cottage in the grounds of 18-acre Blacks-only Brookﬁeld Park, which had baseball ﬁelds, basketball courts, a pool and four tennis courts. Ashe began playing tennis at age seven and showed promise.
Ron Charity, a tennis coach and at the time the best black tennis player in Richmond, began working with Ashe and entering him in local tournaments. Ashe won the National Junior Indoor tennis title – the ﬁrst for an African-American. He began attending UCLA in 1963 on a tennis scholarship. He was also a member of ROTC (Reserve Ofﬁcers’ Training Corps), which offered tuition assistance in exchange for active military service upon graduation. He joined the US Army in 1966 and became a second lieutenant and eventually a ﬁrst lieutenant, prior to his discharge in 1969.
A recent USA Today article by sportswriter Sandra Harwitt, who is also author of The Greatest Jewish Tennis Players of All Times, notes that Arthur’s brother, Johnnie, volunteered for a second tour of duty in Vietnam, knowing that two brothers couldn’t see active duty in a war zone at the same time, thereby keeping Arthur on the tennis court. This allowed Ashe to play in and ultimately win the 1968 US Open. Since Ashe was still an amateur at the time and because of his status as an active Army lieutenant, he was unable to accept the $14,000 prize money. The money ended up going to runner-up Tom Okker of the Netherlands, but, as Arsenault notes, an anonymous donor offered Ashe 100 shares of General Motors stock, which he was ultimately allowed to accept.
AT THE ’68 Ashe Virtual Reality exhibit at this year’s US Open, Ashe speaks about the year 1968, and mentions the deaths of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy as well as the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, where two US athletes bowed their heads and raised ﬁsts as a salute to the Black Power movement during the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner” (both were subsequently thrown off the Olympic team). These events served as an important impetus for his commitment to and involvement in larger issues of the day.
Mary, a US Open volunteer at the virtual reality exhibit, notes that she “tries hard not to inﬂuence people’s experience” as people watch the presentation, but reports that several African-American visitors have shared stories of personal connection with Ashe.
“One playfully shared a story of how Ashe ﬂirted with her when he was 14 and she was 16. Another reported that her cousin is married to Ashe’s brother.”
Another visitor, Tracy Nabaldian of Weston, Connecticut, found the show to be “really cool,” but wishes it was longer.
“It did a neat job in seven minutes of covering his rise and how he found his voice.” She is pleased that a longer documentary about Ashe will premier in 2019.
Ashe’s tennis accomplishments include winning the Davis Cup for the US in 1968 and 1969 and winning the Wimbledon singles title in 1975. Off the court, Ashe got married to artist and photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy in 1977. Ashe began experiencing health problems in 1971 when he suffered a heart attack in July while holding a tennis clinic in New York. In 1979, he underwent a quadruple bypass operation, and in 1983 underwent a second heart surgery.
In 1988, when Ashe was experiencing paralysis in his right arm, it was discovered that he had taxoplasmosis, commonly found in people infected with HIV. It is believed he contracted the virus from blood transfusions from his second heart surgery. Ashe served as national campaign chairman for the American Heart Association and was a member of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Advisory Council.
Ashe was an active civil rights supporter. He was a member of a delegation of 31 African-Americans who visited South Africa. In 1985, he was arrested outside the South African Embassy in Washington during an anti-apartheid rally. He was arrested again in 1992 outside the White House for protesting a crackdown on Haitian refugees. Ashe died in 1993 from AIDS-related pneumonia at the age of 49.
Ashe was a proliﬁc writer, penning books about tennis, basketball and other sports, and several memoirs.
In his 1993 New York Times best-selling book, Days of Grace, he writes about his experience with Jewish people and the Jewish community. He was bothered at the time by the decline in relations between Jews and Blacks in Brooklyn.
“Few aspects of race relations in America have disturbed me as much as the enmity in certain quarters between Blacks and Jews. The entire climate of Black-Jewish relations has become stormy,” Ashe said.
This was in contrast to the very positive experience he had growing up around Jews in Richmond, Virginia.
“I have no reason to feel anything but affection and respect for Jews as a people in the United States. A long time ago I came to the personal realization that all of the people who have helped me become a success in life, a disproportionately large percentage of them have been Jews. And as far as I know, I never sought them out to ask their help. They took the initiative, and continue to do so. Whether or not they are assuaging guilty feelings is, to me, irrelevant.”
Ashe notes, “When I was growing up in Richmond, Jews occupied a prominent and favored place in my life, and in my father’s life. Before and after he found his main job with the Department of Recreation of the City of Richmond, my father worked for a number of wealthy Richmond Jews.” He goes on to list the various Jews who owned department stores and other stores and were “fair and honorable.”
Ashe also observed that “even great wealth did not save the Jews of Richmond from [being subjected to bigotry.” He “became aware of Jews in a more complex way on the tennis team at UCLA,” and writes about how Jews see themselves in American culture. He concludes, “When black demagogues make scapegoats of Jews, we must resist it for what it is; further evidence of the self-hatred and the intellectual and spiritual confusion that racism breeds.”
Arsenault recalls coming across Ashe’s thoughts about the Jews in the research for his book, playfully noting, “I mentioned it, but don’t know if it made it to the cutting room ﬂoor!” He notes that more than 200 pages were cut out of the book.
“I was talking about his early encounters with whites. There was one store in Jackson Ward (a section of Richmond, Virginia) and he knows the owner, who was Jewish. His father knew the Schillers, who were Jewish, and the owners of the big department stores, who were Jewish. I think later his sensibility was very philosemitic. He would make references to the Holocaust.
He just had a great sympathy, I think for some of the commonalities of African-Americans and Jews in terms of being outsiders and having to deal with stereotypes, so he often went out of his way to mention the same positive things about Jews and I think it was just obvious and striking to me that he did have that sensibility.”
Arsenault is fairly certain Ashe never went to Israel.
“The closest was Egypt. That’s when he realized in 1980 that he had to retire. He was in Cairo and went out for a run near the big pyramids and all of the sudden you could see he had horrible angina.
He and [wife] Jeanne had a friend, Doug Stein, who was a Long Island doctor who was with them on the trip, basically told him you have to go home and get this taken care of. He did not go straight back though – they went to Amsterdam, and the art museums, then they went back, and they said you are not playing serious tennis again… so in April of 1980, he announced his retirement. I don’t think he ever went to Israel.”