[For this year’s installment of my annual VirginiaStudying series, I wanted to highlight a handful of the many famous Americans who have been born in the state. Add your Virginia highlights—people, places, or otherwise—for a crowd-sourced weekend post for (Virginia) lovers!]
On three ways Virginia’s and the nation’s African American community contributed to the development of one of our greatest athletes.
1) Brookfield: After Ashe’s mother Mattie died of pre-eclampsia when he was just seven, he and his younger brother Johnnie were raised by their father Arthur Ashe Sr., a handyman and caretaker for Richmond’s Brookfield Park. Brookfield was the city’s largest African American park and playground, and featured four tennis courts where young Arthur started to demonstrate his natural talents. There Ron Charity, a student at the city’s historically black Virginia Union University and a Brookfield tennis instructor (and a future national champion himself), began to work with Arthur and helped him take his first steps into local tournaments. Racial segregation was a regional and national curse with legacies that echo into our own moment; but as so often, African Americans like Ashe and his family refused to allow such bigoted policies to stop them from following the arcs of their lives and identities.
2) Whirlwind Johnson: Charity didn’t just begin coaching the young Arthur; he also brought him to the attention of Robert Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson, the pioneering African American physician who was also Althea Gibson’s coach and the founder of the American Tennis Association’s Junior Development Program. Johnson ran a tennis summer camp at his home in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he invited rising junior stars (of all races, but with a particular emphasis on young African American players) to hone their skills. While Arthur had to attend the all-black Maggie Walker High School in Richmond, Johnson helped connect to a larger tennis community, as in 1958 when a 15 year old Arthur became the first African American to play in the Maryland boys’ championships. It was Arthur’s first integrated tournament, and an indication of the personal and professional steps (as well as pioneering national progress) he was able to achieve with the help of Johnson.
3) Richard Hudlin: Yet even for a player of Arthur’s unquestionable talent, many Virginia doors remained closed to a young African American in the late 1950s; he couldn’t use the city’s indoor courts, and wasn’t allowed to compete against white players in the city. So in 1960, Johnson connected Arthur to another tennis pioneer, Richard Hudlin. Hudlin had captained the University of Chicago’s tennis team in 1928 (despite being the only African American on the team throughout his time there), and had subsequently achieved one of the nation’s first athletic civil rights victories, winning a 1945 lawsuit against the St. Louis Muny Tennis Association that opened up that city’s public facilities and tournaments to all players. Arthur moved to St. Louis, attended Sumner High School for his senior year, and with Hudlin and Johnson’s help became the first African American player to compete in the national Interscholastic Tournament, helping Sumner win the title. The rest is history, but a history that, like these Virginia and African American origin points, should be far better known than it is.
Next Virginian tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Virginians or Virginia connections you’d highlight?
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