Profile: Arthur Ashe (1943-1993)

Arthur Ashe was the first African American to win the men’s singles titles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and the first African-American man to be ranked No. 1 in the world.

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Who Was Arthur Ashe?

Born on July 10, 1943, in Richmond, Virginia, Arthur Ashe became the first (and remains the only) African-American male tennis player to win the U.S. Open and Wimbledon singles titles. He was also the first African-American man to earn the No. 1 ranking in the world and the first to earn induction into the Tennis Hall of Fame. Always an activist, when Ashe learned that he had contracted AIDS via a blood transfusion, he turned his efforts to raising awareness about the disease, before finally succumbing to it on February 6, 1993.

Death

Arthur Ashe died in New York City on February 6, 1993, from AIDS-related pneumonia. Four days later, he was laid to rest in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. Some 6,000 people attended the service.

Wife & Daughter

Ashe met acclaimed photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy at a United Negro College Fund benefit in 1976 and married her a year later. Andrew Young, the Ambassador to the United Nations, presided over the wedding. The couple remained together until Ashe’s death.

Health Problems and AIDS Diagnosis

Ashe, who retired from competition in 1980, was plagued with health issues over the last 14 years of his life. After undergoing a quadruple bypass operation in 1979, he had a second bypass operation in 1983. In 1988 he underwent emergency brain surgery after experiencing paralysis of his right arm. A biopsy taken during a hospital stay revealed that Ashe had AIDS. Doctors soon discovered that Ashe had contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, from a transfusion of blood that he was given during his second heart operation.

Initially, he kept the news hidden from the public. But in 1992, Ashe came forward with the news after he learned that USA Today was working on a story about his health battle.

Political Activism

Ashe didn’t relish his status as the sole black star in a game dominated by white players, but he didn’t run away from it, either. With his unique pulpit, he pushed to create inner-city tennis programs for youth, helped found the Association of Men’s Tennis Professionals and spoke out against apartheid in South Africa — even going so far as to successfully lobby for a visa so he could visit and play tennis there.

The tennis great also wrote a history of African-American athletes: A Hard Road to Glory(three volumes, published in 1988) and served as national campaign chairman of the American Heart Association.

After news of his condition became public, Ashe poured himself into the work of raising awareness about AIDS. He delivered a speech at the United Nations, started a new foundation and laid the groundwork for a $5 million fundraising campaign for the institution.

Ashe continued to work, even as his health began to deteriorate, traveling to Washington, D.C. in late 1992 to participate in a protest over the United States’ treatment of Haitian refugees. For his part in the demonstration, Ashe was taken away in handcuffs. It was a poignant final display for a man who was never shy about showing his concern for the welfare of others.

Early Life

Arthur Robert Ashe Jr. was born on July 10, 1943, in Richmond, Virginia. The older of Arthur Ashe Sr. and Mattie Cunningham’s two sons, Arthur Ashe Jr. blended finesse and power to forge a groundbreaking tennis game.

Ashe’s childhood was marked by hardship and opportunity. Under his mother’s direction, Ashe was reading by the age of four. But his life was turned upside down two years later, when Mattie passed away.

Ashe’s father, fearful of seeing his boys fall into trouble without their mother’s discipline, began running a tighter ship at home. Ashe and his younger brother, Johnnie, went to church every Sunday, and after school they were required to come straight home, with Arthur Sr. closely watching the time: “My father … kept me home, out of trouble. I had exactly 12 minutes to get home from school, and I kept to that rule through high school.”

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