arthur ashe cover Arthur Ashe: A Life Excerpt From New Book By Raymond Arsenault

Photo Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Raymond Arsenault is the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg. One of the nation’s leading civil rights historians, he is the author of several acclaimed and prize-winning books, including Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice and The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America.

His new book Arthur Ashe: A Life, from CBS sister company Simon & Schuster, is available now wherever books are sold.

In honor of this year’s U.S. Open and the 50th anniversary of tennis legend Arthur Ashe’s historic win, read an excerpt from the new biography ”Arthur Ashe: A Life” by Raymond Arsenault, published by sister company Simon & Schuster.

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It was late June 1955, and a boys and girls tournament sponsored by the all-black American Tennis Association (ATA) was about to begin on the public courts at Turkey Thicket Park, in the University Heights section of Northeast Washington, D.C. One girl eager to play that day was Doris Cammack—an up‑and-coming fifteen-year-old harboring dreams of becoming the next Althea Gibson—the talented young woman from Harlem who six years earlier had become the first black female to breach the color line in competitive tennis. A victory in the Washington tournament would solidify Doris’s ranking as a regional star, but as the first round began she faced an unexpected problem. On that sultry Saturday morning in June, her dreams took a tumble when she learned an odd number of competitors had registered for the girls draw, leaving her with no girl to play in the opening round. Her only option, the ATA organizers explained, was to play a first-round exhibition match against an eleven-year-old boy borrowed from the male draw.

Though disappointed, Doris reluctantly agreed to the unusual arrangement. Yet when she saw how small and scrawny her opponent actually was—a boy with arms as thin as the handle of his wooden racket—she balked. “I’m not playing against him,” she sneered, convinced she had been set up as a foil in what would almost certainly be a farcical match. Only after sensing that pulling out of the match would hurt the little boy’s feelings—and after being assured by ATA officials that he was “pretty good”—did she agree to take the court against her four-foot-eight-inch, seventy-pound opponent.

What happened next stunned the small crowd of spectators that had gathered to watch an impromptu battle of the sexes. Brandishing amazing foot speed and a slingshot forehand that allowed him to hit the ball with surprising power and accuracy, the little boy took poor Doris to the proverbial cleaners. Losing only a handful of games, he needed less than an hour to win two sets and the match. Doris did her best to smile in defeat as she walked to the net and reached down to shake the boy’s hand, but whatever confidence she had mustered before the match was gone. A few weeks later she gave up her ATA dreams altogether, disabused of any notion that she would find glory on a tennis court.

Little Art, as he was known then, was polite and respectful in victory, just as his parents had taught him to be. Yet he also felt the full flush of victory, even at the age of eleven. Soon his aspirations would move beyond mere victory as he began to dream of becoming a tennis star, but he never lost his manners or his sportsmanship—or, for that matter, his boyish enthusiasm for a game that brought him so much joy and satisfaction. Years later, Doris, who kept close tabs on her young conqueror’s path to stardom, had difficulty keeping her composure when recounting her brief brush with a life ultimately marked as much by tragedy as by triumph. While laughing at the story of her own demise as a competitive tennis player, she could not help but tear up when recalling the fate of Arthur Ashe, a valiant and courageous man who would succumb to complications related to AIDS at the age of forty-nine.

Nearly forty years after Doris Cammack’s humiliation and more than a decade after the close of his storied career, Arthur found himself at the center of a more serious but equally telling scene unfolding in the nation’s capital. This time he was in Washington to participate in a protest march outside the White House. The issue that had drawn him there was the mistreatment of Haitian refugees by immigration and law enforcement officials representing the administration of President George H. W. Bush. Randall Robinson—who grew up with Arthur in Richmond and later collaborated with him on issues related to Africa, race, and colonialism—had asked his old friend to come, and Arthur, loyal to a fault, could not in good conscience say no. Jointly sponsored by the NAACP and Robinson’s twenty-year-old organization TransAfrica, the protest march drew a diverse group of two thousand participants and resulted in nearly one hundred arrests. Only one of those arrested was a sports celebrity. For years, Ashe had urged his fellow athletes to speak out on social justice issues, but relatively few had answered his call. In the Haitian protest, he was the lone representative of the sports world—a situation that did not surprise anyone familiar with American politics.

What was surprising, however, was Ashe’s decision to take part in the protest even though he knew a terminal disease had reduced his medical condition to the breaking point. For nearly ten years, he had struggled with AIDS, a disease acquired from a blood transfusion administered during recovery from heart surgery in 1983. While he had first learned of his AIDS diagnosis in 1988—and his condition had only been public knowledge for five months at the time of the Washington march—his identification with this dreaded disease had already changed his life beyond recognition. Many of the changes were burdensome, and few observers would have blamed him if he had chosen to retreat from public view, spending what remained of his life with family and close friends.

But withdrawal was never an option for a man who had long identified with civic and social responsibility. Ashe followed his conscience even when it meant putting his comfort—or even his life—at risk. The racial prejudice that inspired the differential treatment of light-skinned Cuban refugees and their dark-skinned counterparts from Haiti was, in his view, simply too malevolent to ignore, whatever the personal consequences of an action against it might be.

Excerpted from Arthur Ashe: A Life by Raymond Arsenault. Copyright © 2018 by the author. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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Raymond Arsenault is the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg. One of the nation’s leading civil rights historians, he is the author of several acclaimed and prize-winning books, including Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice and The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America.

His new book Arthur Ashe: A Life, from CBS sister company Simon & Schuster, is available now wherever books are sold.