With Ashe, Graceful Is The Word

Published 3:17 pm Thursday, July 23, 2015

The expression “a legacy of slavery” often surfaces when America’s racial problem and injustice arise in social conversations.  I suppose the fact that more than 70 percent of African-American children are currently being raised without a dad present feeds the social disaster.

Clearly, Arthur Ashe proved this wrong 40 years ago. He won the tennis championships at Wimbledon.

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Editorially, the Richmond Times Dispatch summarized this man-champion: “He earned eternal membership in the aristocracy of merit.” Maybe it’s that merit business that brings me back to Ashe – not the Confederate flag issue.

Rhapsodizing about my almost contemporary Richmonder, the tennis champ conjures up exhausting appreciation. If we can bypass his tennis celebrity, Ashe was so much more. He empowered local student achievement by reconciling the irreconcilable. His model of pure integrity was important to struggling black and white youths alike.

“Days of Grace,” a life-reflecting autobiography, revealed the key. Growing up black and barred from playing tennis in segregated public parks, Ashe improvised. Learning to play from Ron Charity at age seven, and then from Dr. Robert “Whirlwind” Johnson at tennis camp in Lynchburg, he plunged into poised citizenship.

Receiving a UCLA tennis scholarship, after graduating from the segregated Maggie Walker High School, this solemn-eyed student blended career with growing personal dignity. Ashe catapulted into national celebrity with tennis achievements (818 wins, 260 losses) until exhaustion indicated a predisposition to heart disease in 1979. Richmond’s champion endured the early era of open-heart surgery — strength  and faith abide.

Thirty-three years later it would be my turn.

A tainted blood transfusion intervened, passing on the AIDS virus; this would hound him into a death sentence … bitterness purged.

Ashe was five years my junior, so our connection was remote. As a public school teacher, I met him twice — for purpose of honoring top high school academic achievers, public and private — at Holiday Inn 3200 in Richmond. Obviously ill, ever resilient, Ashe buoyed by rapturous teen audiences, courageously, shaking hands, autographing automatically, enduring the energy of adolescent honorees … his mentoring reigned.

“Of all my possessions, my reputation means most to me,” he wrote. He tried to live up to rules set by his disciplinarian father, Arthur Ashe Sr. “Don’t do anything you couldn’t tell your mother about,” dad would chide. Amid the perceived quaintness, hamstrung with an ever coarsening culture, Ashe didn’t flinch — his behavioral code remained rock-strong.

As U.S. Davis Cup team captain, Ashe viewed personal conduct and behavior an ultimate responsibility. Lamenting Jimmy Connors’ refusal to participate in Cup rounds, and observing John McEnroe’s bratty exhibitionism sullying America’s reputation, Ashe was mortified.

Then, the honesty in “Days of Grace.”  He expressed deep disappointment in basketball greats Earvin Johnson (Ashe thought it demeaning to call him “Magic”) and Wilt Chamberlain. When they publicly bragged of their sexual conquests, he ruminated: “What does this say to youth who idolize them?”

Political liberalism spoke to his personal values: activist government; endorsement of abortion rights; marching in protest movements against South African apartheid; and exhibiting near-worship of Nelson Mandela. He traced black American challenges to slavery and discrimination — then quickly would admonish:  “This history of oppression not be used as excuse for antisocial behavior, black chauvinism or bogus appeals to racial solidarity.”

I wondered what Ashe thought of Frederick Douglass’ quote in the 19th century concerning well-meaning whites. Thomas Sowell assures that Douglass said, “Everybody has asked the question, ‘What shall we do with the Negro?’ I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us.”

“Days of Grace” was required reading in my Advanced Placement U.S. History classes at Mills Godwin High School. Frankly, it ought to be required reading in the company of “To Kill a Mocking Bird,” and “The Great Gatsby.” Standing alone, that work alone dictates the move to rename Richmond’s Boulevard: ASHE BOULEVARD.

Passing frequently by his Monument Avenue statue, I am reminded that Arthur Ashe was a godsend to Richmonders who take pride in his citizenry. He abundantly brought us qualities of soul-enhancing self-examination. Maybe, a Russell Wilson will emerge with the same qualities. Our culture is desperate for them.

Raymond B. Wallace Jr., a Richmond resident and former trustee of the Virginia Retirement System, wrote his first book, “Essex Memories & Beyond,” recently nominated in the non-fiction category for the 18th annual Library of Virginia Award, 2015. His email address is rbwallace01@verizon.net.