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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 287

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This is the grave of Arthur Ashe.

Born in 1943 in Richmond to a working-class family, Ashe’s childhood was a little rough. His mom died from pregnancy complications when he was a child. His father worked in the city’s recreation department, which in the 1940s in Virginia meant he was doing manual labor for poverty wages. His father became caretaker of one of the city’s parks and the largest black park (as all parks were of course segregated) and so the family was allowed to live in the caretaker’s cottage. That also meant Ashe was around sports and his athletic prowess showed from a young age. He started playing tennis at the age of 7 and excelled. He had private coaching from the best black tennis players in the area, who not only taught him skills but also that he would never be accepted in that all-white game if he didn’t play with grace and manners and never argued with umpires. He also couldn’t really compete in Virginia because of segregation. So he spent his senior year of high school in St. Louis, where segregation wasn’t as strong and where he could compete with white players. He won the National Junior Tennis Title in 1960 and was featured with a small piece in Sports Illustrated. That all led to a scholarship at UCLA, where he won the NCAA singles’ title in 1965. But it wasn’t a full scholarship (even today, most scholarships in sports such as tennis aren’t full) and he joined ROTC to pay for his college. After he graduated in 1966, he had to put a professional career on hold to join the military, where he was assigned to West Point to work as a data processor while he taught tennis.

That delay was pretty remarkable because even in college, Ashe was one of the nation’s top tennis players. In 1963, he became the first black player ever selected for the Davis Cup team. By the time he won that title in 1965 at UCLA, he was ranked #3 in the U.S. He still played some during his military time, going to the finals of the Australian Open in 1966 and 1967. In 1968, he won both the U.S. Amateur Championships and the U.S. Open, being not only the first black player to win the Open, but the only person to ever win them in the same year. But as he was still in the military, he had to play as an amateur and so got no prize money.

Ashe left the military in 1969, turned pro at the age of 26, and then won the Australian Open in 1970. He reached the finals there again in 1971 while winning the Men’s Doubles at the French Open the same year. He won at Wimbledon in 1975 over Jimmy Connors. The two hated each other. Ashe was central to founding of the Association of Tennis Professionals, which while not exactly a union, represents players interests. When Connors signed up with something called World Team Tennis, an alternative league of mixed doubles tennis, the ATP, of which Ashe was now president, opposed his entry into the French Open. Connors also sued Ashe for $5 million for libel around the issue. Ashe basically trolled Connors during the match by wearing red, white, and blue and his USA Davis Cup team jacket while strolling on court to play him. Connors later dropped the lawsuit. Here’s the highlights of this match.

Ashe’s late start as a professional meant that his peak career wasn’t that long. He started to have health problems, first with a heel injury but then with heart problems. He had open heart surgery in 1979 and retired in 1980, at the age of 36. Even today, he is the only person of African descent to win a Men’s Grand Slam singles title (Yannick Noah is the other). Tennis is still a very white sport.

Ashe was always active in social causes, leading the charge to boycott South African sporting events, raising money for civil rights issues, and getting arrested twice in the 80s, once during an anti-apartheid protest and again during a protest against the Reagan administration’s treatment of Haitian refugees.

Ashe had a couple of heart surgeries, as heart problems ran in his family. During the blood transfusions to fix his heart, he was exposed to HIV-tainted blood. He was diagnosed in 1988, probably being exposed during a 1983 surgery. For a man who lived very publicly, he did not want this knowledge being exposed. It was not until 1992, when word got out that he was sick and USA Today found out what was wrong with him. He was very angry about this. But he took advantage of the opportunity to become one of the early faces of the AIDS crisis. Given that AIDS was basically just considered “gay cancer” for its first decade, when people such as Ashe and Magic Johnson and Ryan White were diagnosed, it helped the public realize that this was not just a disease of people they hated. Ashe addressed the UN General Assembly late in 1992 to demand global funding to cure and treat HIV. He also founded the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health to funnel money toward fighting health care disparities toward urban communities of color at the end of 1992. Here is the last public message Ashe ever gave, just before his death. Among other things, he talks about the stupidity of abstinence-based sex ed.

Ashe died in February 1993. His body lie in state in the governor’s mansion in Richmond, as the state had elected Douglas Wilder governor.

Arthur Ashe is buried in Woodland Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia.

A note about this grave visit. The state of this cemetery is very sad. I felt like I was driving into something abandoned for years when I went there. Grass covered most of the graves, sometimes 2 or 3 feet high. The roads barely existed. And then, in a corner, was Ashe’s well-kept grave with a little fence around it. It turns out that this is a common problem with black cemeteries in the South. Not surprisingly, the poverty and exploitation that dominates black life is replicated in black death. I have another person to profile later this week that will bring this phenomenon into greater focus, but for now, let’s just say that the difference in maintenance and care for cemeteries where white people are buried and those for black people reminds you of the difference between white and black schools, whether in 1954 or 2018.

This grave visit was paid for with LGM reader donations. Again, I highly appreciate this and I hope this was a good use of your resources. If you would like this series to profile more of early victims of HIV, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Ryan White is in Cicero, Indiana while Randy Shilts, author of And the Band Played On, one of the great books about public health in all of American history, is in Guerneville, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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