A Man of Many “Firsts”

   Today’s post was written by Daniella Furman, Archivist in the Textual Processing Branch at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland

     With both Black History month and the 50th anniversary of the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fast approaching, I began looking back to the year of 1968 to try to get a small picture of the country and its’ people at that time. There were so many important milestones and events happening in 1968 that I quickly became overwhelmed by all of the social change and chaos.  But I also saw an immeasurable amount of courage, determination, strength and compassion during that year that led me to delve deeper.

     Two events that stood out in particular that I would like to highlight from that year are the first ever U.S. Amateur Tennis Competition and the first U.S. Tennis Open held that allowed amateur players to competeIn winning both of these competitions, Arthur Ashe became the first black male to win both the amateur and open competition in the same year. I decided to find out more about this man and his story. I was truly moved by his story and the example of someone using their talents, drive and accomplishments to pave a way forward for others.

     Arthur Ashe (1943-1993) was a three times Grand Slam Tennis champion. During his athletic career he received many awards and accolades including being ranked World No. 1 in 1968 and 1975. He achieved so many firsts and a wide variety of awards and titles that had never been held by an African American male before. He is also known for his charitable works and activism including founding the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS and the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health. He was also posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton. Ashe begun playing tennis by the age of 7 in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia and continued through high school. During this time he was trained and mentored by Ron Charity and Robert Walter Johnson. In 1958 he competed in his first integrated tennis competition and became the first African American to play in the Maryland Boys Championships. He later decided to move to St. Louis, Missouri where the competitions were more racially integrated than in Virginia at the time.

     He was ultimately awarded a tennis scholarship to the University of California in Los Angeles in 1963 where he was coached by J.D. Morgan. Ashe was also active in the R.O.T.C in college which led him to join active military service after graduation. While in the Army he worked as a data processor at the United States Military Academy at West Point and remained in the army until 1969. His Army military personnel file is located in Record Group 319 Records of the Army Staff, Series “Official Military Personnel Files 1912-1998” (NAID 40922125). Arthur Ashe went on to become the first African American player ever selected for the United Stated Davis Cup team in 1965 where he won the National Collegiate Athletic Association singles title and doubles title.

Reagan White House Photographs, 1/20/1981-1/20/1989 (NAID 75855229)

     Now back to the year 1968, and Arthur Ashe has made yet another ground breaking victory by becoming the first African American male to capture the title of the United States Amateur Competition and the U.S. Open. However because he was still serving in the military during the time he had to remain in the ‘amateur’ category in order to compete in these competitions. Because of this he was only awarded $20.00 dollars a day for expenses for this historic win instead of the grand prize award of $14,000.

Reagan White House Photographs, 1/20/1981-1/20/1989 (NAID 75856909)


     While achieving great fame, Ashe was still subject to overt and hurtful discrimination during his career. Later in 1968, Ashe applied for a visa to play in the South African Open competition but was denied the visa because of the South African strict enforcement of an apartheid policy of racial segregation. He did not stop applying however, and was repeatedly denied this opportunity in the years to come. Finally, South Africa was expelled from the Davis Cup tennis competition in 1970 for their refusal to let Ashe compete and their enforcement of racial segregation. It wasn’t until 1973 that the South African government decided to end their Olympic ban and allow Ashe the visa he needed to enter into the country for the first time to play in the South African Open.

      After his retirement in 1980 Ashe went on to publish a three volume book titled A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African American Athlete as well as serve as a civil rights activist. He traveled to South Africa to support the country’s racial integration efforts. He also contributed to the anti-apartheid efforts here in the United States. Ashe still holds the title of being the only African American man to win singles titles at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Australia Open.

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