Looking back at my childhood, I see my world defined as a series of concentric circles. At the center was our house at 1610 Sledd St. The next circle was Brook Field, which played an important role in defining my future. Beyond that was school, then church and finally, the city of Richmond and the world beyond. Each of these circles was defined largely by black people because I was growing up in a rigidly segregated society. But at each level, I was nurtured, loved and challenged to develop my potential. The inequities imposed by racism were frustrating, but I was fortunate to be surrounded by a devoted father and other black people determined to push me along, broaden my horizons and help me develop a sense of myself that ignored the limits white Richmond wanted to impose.
The way Daddy told the story he was driving Mr. William Thalheimer to the outskirts of Richmond to see a man about a piece of property. It was during the Depression -- the man needed money -- but it irked him that a Jew, in this case Mr. Thalheimer, was going to buy his piece of real estate. The fact that Thalheimer's Department Store was and still is the Bloomingdale's of Richmond meant little to the man.
"You should have heard this man," Daddy recounted to my brother Johnny and me one day. "He called Mr. Thalheimer all sorts of things. Mr. Thalheimer never said a word. When the man finished all his ranting and raving, they closed the deal."
"Where were you, Daddy?" I asked, curious about how he knew so much.
"I was leaning on the fender of the car, listening and watching. Just listening and watching."
"Didn't it bother Mr. Thalheimer what the man said?" I persisted.
Daddy smiled. "On the way back to Richmond, I asked Mr. Thalheimer why he took all that guff. He said, 'I came out here to buy that land and the end result is I got the land. It's mine now. He can curse me out all he likes.'"
Daddy was a practical man. He also was a hustler. Hustling is a much-used term in black circles, especially in the South. It doesn't mean to swindle someone out of something; it means someone who will work two or three jobs to make ends meet, someone who doesn't mind working hard to get what he wants out of life, someone who is practical enough to recognize that if something needs to be done, he will figure out a way to do it, even if it may involve some sacrifice. The incident with Mr. Thalheimer left a strong impression on Daddy. He got to know people. He kept his eyes and ears open. He was clairvoyant. Very seldom did situations catch him unprepared. When it got cold in the winter, we never had to worry where the heat was coming from.
"Get in the truck, Arthur Junior," he would announce with a firm voice that left no room for fooling around. He always called me "Arthur Junior."
"Where we going?" I would ask, more eager to play tennis at the Brook Field courts next to our house than run errands.
"We're going to Westwood to get some wood for the winter."
"But it's only August, Daddy."
"Don't worry about that, Arthur Junior. When something's available today, you don't wait for tomorrow."
Sure enough, construction crews were cutting down trees and clearing land to build new houses in Willow Lane. Daddy drove his truck to the area, backed up to the truck, cut the wood with his chain saw, took the wood home, covered it and left it. It would stay there until winter.
Daddy set one hell of an example for me. He was 32 years old and my mother 27 when she died suddenly on that March day in 1950. I remember the last time I saw her. It was cool and cloudy, and birds were singing in the small oak tree outside our house. Mother was in her blue corduroy bathrobe in the kitchen as I finished breakfast. She was having trouble with her third pregnancy; she went into the hospital later that day, there were unexpected complications and she died. The image of her standing there burned itself into my memory. So did the sight of my father crying uncontrollably after he returned from the hospital the following morning.
He woke Johnny and me, called us out of the bunk beds we shared, put my brother on his knee, squeezed me tightly and told us that Mama had died.
"This is all I got left," he kept repeating. "This is all I got left." All my life, I think I've tried to prove to him that my brother and I would make up for his loss. I never saw Daddy cry that way again until that afternoon at Forest Hills, 18 years later, after I won the first U.S. Open men's singles title. But those were tears of joy.
Daddy asked me if I wanted to go to Mama's funeral. I don't know why he asked. Maybe he thought the funeral would be too much for me. Maybe, in that situation, he wanted to share the responsibilities with me. I don't know why, but I said no. It wasn't an emphatic or emotional response, just a matter-of-fact "no." I've tried to reach whatever feelings I had at the time, but all I remember is a certain distance from the rush of unexpected events that turned our lives inside out.
Looking back, the events of that day are abstract and distant, as if seen through the wrong end of a telescope. I was sent to Mrs. Scott's across the yard from our house. She fixed me a bowl of cornflakes. I watched from her yard as the funeral procession left my house and made its way through the neighborhood to Westwood Baptist Church on the other side of town.
Later that day, my grandmother would tell me, "Your mother is gone, Arthur Junior. She's gone to heaven."
"Where is that?" I asked. "When can see her?"
"You will see her when you grow up and die and go to heaven," she said. "If you're a good boy, you'll see her again. Then you can stay with her forever and ever." Her words made me feel better.
When I think of my mother, the strongest feeling I get is regret. I can remember her reading to me and encouraging me to learn. Relatives say I read sooner than anyone they ever knew. There is a photograph of her, me and my brother Johnny posing with the white Santa Claus at Miller & Rhodes. But I can't remember her voice, I can't remember how she felt, smelled or tasted. More than once, I've longed for a memory of my mother that seems just beyond my grasp.
Mama's death had a profound effect on our family. Daddy's personality changed, and the sharp clothes, playfulness and happy-go-lucky style gave way to a more serious demeanor. "A man's responsible for his family," he would tell us. "Otherwise, a man ain't a man."
It would have been easy -- and no one would have blamed him -- if Daddy had asked another woman, like a sister-in-law, to take care of us. He didn't do that. He did it all himself, fulfilling the promise he made to my mother when she sensed she was dying.
"I didn't bring them into this world to farm out," she told Daddy the night before her operation. "They're your children. I brought them into the world for you, so promise me that you'll raise them yourself."
"I promise I'll do that," he replied.
As one of the few blacks on the police force, with a city job, Daddy was an important man in the black community. He still talks about the turnout for Mama's funeral cortege. "More than 400 cars," he said. "blacks and whites."
I have always had a penchant for detail. At Baker Elementary School, I will never forget that day in Mrs. Virginia Jordan's class when President Eisenhower was inaugurated in 1953. One of Eisenhower's first acts was to insert the words "under God" in the final phrase of the Pledge of Allegiance: "One nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all." Because those two words were added, I paid attention to what we had been reciting by rote for years. Were those words really intended for us? We went to all-black schools. If we wanted a cab, we couldn't ride Yellow Cabs because they were for whites only. When I took the Number 1 bus to my grandmother's house, I had to sit behind the white line. All the people in positions of authority in the city were white. One day, I asked my father, "Is the smartest colored man (that was the term we used then) dumber than the dumbest white man?"
Daddy was slightly startled. But he recovered quickly enough to tell me, "There are smart ones and dumb ones on both sides."
There was no gray in Daddy's world. His rules were black or white, without regard to race, and there was a time when I feared him. I could tell his state of mind from the tone of his voice. He was very strict, almost overprotective, and it was understandable. He had lost a father and wife in less than 12 months. He did not want to lose his children through any failure to follow orders.
"go get my belt," he would say, if I returned late from school or forgot a chore. The belt could have been the strap in a barber shop; it was 39 inches long, at least an eighth of an inch thick and first-quality cowhide. Only grade-A leather would do for my behind. The whippings never lasted more than 30 seconds and almost always took place in the bedroom on Fridays.
His sense of discipline was simple: he knew what was best for his children and he had to give an order only once. "There's to be no hanging around," was one of his commandments. "If you don't have to be somewhere, you should be home. A man is supposed to be at home with his family if he ain't workin' or some place special."
Those homilies, repeated throughout my childhood, became burrowed into my personality.
If Daddy was strict with us, he was just as disciplined with himself, a sensitive man with simple tastes. He seldom smiled and finally gave it up for good; he never drank and there was no liquior in our house. For a man with a sixth-grade education, who could barely read and write, he understood the game. And he made certan his children knew: He took my brother and me everywhere -- on trips, to work, fishing and hunting. After awhile, we knew as much about running the playground as Daddy did.
I think the reason Daddy had us tag along on his job was to profit from his experience. We would learn how to do the things that he knew how to do because he figured we needed these things for survival. He was going on the assumption that we would grow up in a world like his. If you're black, you have to live in this set of circumstances, you have to have a certain set of tools and skills and the more you had, the more you could survive. What he gave us was a message that too few black children are fortunate enough to receive: "I can set an example. I can show you how to paint, fix cars, work with tools, plan ahead. I can also show you that when I don't have anything special to do, I'm at home."
I had been standing for about 20 minutes, leaning against a tree, when I heard the dogs barking in the distance. The adrenaline began to flow. I gripped my gun a little tighter and tried to see whether my anticipation was imaginary or real.
The weather was cold and cloudy, a typical November morning in King William County, an hour's drive northeast from Richmond. I wore rubber boots and a rust-colored outfit with a bright orange cap, and carried a 12-gauge shotgun as if it were the ultimate test of manhood.
"Patience, Arthur Junior," Daddy had reminded me. "Don't panic. Just be patient."
The tension of waiting for a deer is similar to pursuing the seventh point of a tiebreaker. Since this was my first deer hunt, I didn't want to flub my chance. The deer hunt is one of the rites of passage for a boy, like a driver's license or that first kiss. My father had fished and hunted for as long as I could remember. I looked forward to the day when I could hunt with him for the first time.
Deer hunting is done in packs in the South because the objective is to get a deer. Daddy belonged to the all-black Brown's Sportsmen's Club, but a deer hunt was one of the few genuine bonds between black and white men in the South, an area they could share without racial turmoil and animosity. Perhaps the absence of white women to cause uneasiness was a factor.
"Deer have smart ears and hawk eyes," Daddy whispered, cautioning against any noise while we waited.
The barking grew louder in the woods, But I knew the dogs were not yet on the scent. There are two distinct barks with hunting dogs. The first reflects the ordinary excitement of being outdoors. Then there is the primeval, genetically programmed bark of the predator. This sound is nature in the raw, about as close as a man gets to the experiences of war outside the danger of being killed. It is legal, spinetingling and sporting.
When the sound of the dogs changed to that deeper, more urgent bark and shifted from loud to soft to loud, they were "on the trail." Once dogs lock into a scent, they simply follow their noses. They don't have to see their prey. Their heads are down, their tails are out, their ears fly.
I moved away from my tree. My right thumb rested on the bottom of the safety switch. I could read the word "SAFE" engraved near the trigger. "When you are looking for a deer," Daddy had told me, "always look with your ears first. Don't look in the direction of the noise. Listen first, look second."
It had not rained the night before so the ground was hard and the leaves crackled like Rice Krispies. I heard the dogs howling and I heard the deer. Branches and twigs snapped like rifle shots as the animals zigged and zagged through the underbrush. Surely he can see me now, I thought. How can he miss my orange cap?
A light-brown shape moved swiftly through the foilage in my direction. The figure moved from left to right, and I could make out a white tail, a head forward, a breathing in heavy gulps. Suddenly, the buck broke into the open, exposed to me in detail by the clear dry air. His antlers stabbed in a dozen directions, his muscles quivered under his coat and flecks of saliva outlined his mouth.
"Aim for the rib cage just slightly below and behind the front legs," Daddy had thought.
For an instant, the fear of having my shirttail cut flashed into my head. Hunters perform this operation publicly if someone misses a clear, unobstructed, "no-excuse" shot at a deer. This little ceremony is entirely in fun, but it leaves the victim the butt of jokes until he redeems himself. The cutting is done after a kill, just before the hindquarters are awarded. The least damaged hindquarters goes to the hunter who bagged the deer. The other hindquarter goes to the hunter who assisted. Sometimes there are good-natured arguments about who did the wounding and who did the killing, but I've never seen the disagreements become serious.
The buck was a hundred feet away and moving swiftly across my line of vision. I raised my shotgun, lined up my sights and slipped the safety to the "off" position.
"Aim for a lead of a foot in front of his front leg. Squeeze -- don't pull -- the trigger." The stillness of the woods was shattered by the roar of my double-barreled shotgun. The butt slammed into my right shoulder. The buck was hit and dropped to the ground like a sack thrown from the back of a truck. I had another load left. "If the deer falls immediately after the first shot, wait a bit on the second shot. If you miss or the deer keeps going, shoot again immediately."
I waited. It looked as if I'd bagged my first trophy with one shot. I lowered my shotgun and started walking toward the buck. Without warning, he got up and hobbled away. Before I could raise my shotgun, he was gone, leaving a flash of white tail in my mind's eye. Less than 10 seconds later, I heard the sound of Daddy's Browning semi-automatic shotgun. I could tell the hunt was over because he was such a good shot. I raced toward his stand. The deer was lying on its side, bloodied by shots from my gun and from my father's. A slight wind sent a chill through me. I was drenched with nervous sweat, but I didn't care. We would take home our share of the kill that night. I had avoided losing a shirttail. Somehow, I had passed the test.
I'll never forget when Ronald Charity took Sterling Clark and me to Byrd Park to register for a city tournament. Ron was the first person who taught me how to play tennis. aBut as a black student attending predominantly Virginia Union University, Ron knew that Byrd Park was off-limits to blacks, even for tournaments. He wanted to see if Sam Woods bend a little and let us play.
Sam was Mr. Tennis in Richmond for a long time. But when Ron asked if we could enter, Sam said, "I'm sorry, we can't let you play."
"Why not?" Ron persisted.
Sam was too embarrassed to look at us. "The time's not right yet," he said. "I can't break the rules as they exist now."
You can't compare tennis with baseball, basketball or football. When Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, dozens of good baseball players in the Negro leagues were waiting to follow. In the case of Althea Gibson, who was the first prominent black in tennis and won national grass court titles at Forest Hills in 1957 and 1958, you didn't have a reservior of black talent waiting to walk in if the door ever opened.
The four tennis courts just outside our side door were used fairly regularly by a handful of black people in Richmond. The all-black Richmond Racquet Club used Brook Field as its home base. As I grew increasingly sensitive to matters of race, I noticed most of the black tennis players came from the educated, well-to-do segments of our community -- principals, doctors, dentists and lawyers. For a 7-year-old seeking his niche in a complex, segregated society, I found that significant.
The students at Virginia Union also made good use of the courts. Their campus was just beyond Brook Field and they had no courts of their own. They practiced at the playground and played tennis from other colleges. Ron Charity spent more time on the courts than anyone else. For hours and hours, he hit balls against the wall or served to an empty court. Even my untrained eye could see an unusual grace in his swing, an agility that surpassed most of his opponents.
One afternoon I watched him play against another school. He dominated his opponent and won. His name was whispered around the gaggle of girl friends, relatives, tennis buffs and curious bystanders who drifted over from the football fields, baseball diamonds and basketball courts. Ron Charity, they said, was one of the best black players in the country. I was properly impressed.
The next afternoon, he was out on the courts again, working on his serve. I watched for a while. Finally, he noticed me.
"What's your name?"
"Arthur Ashe Junior."
"Your dad runs the playground?"
He nodded and went back to his serve. His racquet flashed high above his head in the late afternoon sun and sliced through the silence. White balls rocketed to the corners of the opposing court. After a while, he stopped and looked at me again.
"You play tennis?"
I shrugged. I had batted some old tennis balls around with the $12 nylon-strung racket that had found its way into the wooden equipment box under my bedroom window.
"You want to learn?"
I nodded. At that age, any sport was a challenge I felt I could master. "You got a racket. Go get it," he said.
Ron Charity was a patient teacher who understood my strengths and limitations.
Ron stood on the other side of the net and tossed thousands of balls to me in the year that followed. I concentrated on form, stroke and getting the ball over the net. When I was alone and couldn't find someone to hit with me, I played against a backboard. Tennis became something I could do by myself, like reading absorbed in workout worrying about teammates.
In the spring of 1954, Virginia Union hosted the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association Tennis Tournament. The CIAA was an association of black colleges. I was 10 and had been taking lessons from Ron Charity for about three years. During a break in the action, I started hitting some balls on the court that was not in use.
"Somebody wants to meet you," Ron said, approaching the court.
I followed him to a table that was under the tree outside my side door. Seated at the table was the tournament director, recording scores and directing players to the proper courts. Dr. R. W. Johnson was 5-foot-10, dark-skinned, handsome, with wavy brown hair and a small scar on his upper lip.
"Dr. Johnson," Ron Charity said, "This Arthur Ashe Jr."
He shook my hand and looked me over quizzically. "I understand you're 10 years old."
"You've been playing three years."
"You like tennis?"
He nodded, asked a few more questions and dismissed me. I went back to the empty court, but felt him watching me as I played. When I glanced over, he was talking to Ron. Later that day, he talked to my father, for a long time.
After the matches, Daddy spoke to me about Dr. Johnson. "Arthur Junior," he began. I could tell from the form of address that this was to be serious conversation. "Dr. Johnson works with young tennis players. He'd like you to come down to his place for a couple of weeks in the summer so you can play against other players every day. You'll also have a chance to travel to some other tournaments."
If the chance to play against other boys had not been enough, the word "travel" would have done it. Here was a chance to explore the world beyond the pages of my old National Geographics. I had been to South Hill in the summer and had traveled to Chicago by train with my grandmother. But Dr. Johnson's offer was almost too good to be true. I had no trouble accepting.
Dr. Johnson's son Bobby, who did a lot of the teaching, wanted to change my backhand the first day I was in Lynchburg.
"Mr. Charity showed me the other way," I protested. I didn't want to change my grip. I felt I could hit all day and not miss.
"I'm your teacher now and I want to change it," Bobby said firmly. I stood my ground.
"Well, if you want Ron Charity to teach you," Bobby said, "why don't you go home?"
We had reached an impasse. Dr. Johnson called my father. Two hours later, the blue Ford screeched to a stop in the driveway. Daddy listened to their explanations of the problem. He turned to me. "Dr. Johnson is teaching you now, Arthur Junior. You do what they say." Daddy then got in his car and drove back to Richmond.
It was that simple. I always obeyed my father. They had no more trouble with me. But to tell the truth, I didn't really change my grip on my backhand that much.
I did notice that I seemed to have more endurance then the older boys. I was smaller, couldn't hit as hard or serve as fast, but I could last longer. So I would try to go as long as I could in the practice sessions and against the backboard without missing. I also began to learn the standard tennis principles: approach shot, go down the line, not cross-court; no drop shot from the baseline; when in doubt, hit a semilob deep down the middle; get 70 percent of your first serves in.
There were also maxims meant only for little black Southern boys: when in doubt, call your opponent's shot good; if you're serving the game before the change of ends, pick up the balls on your side and hand them to your opponent during the crossover. Dr. Johnson knew we were going into territory that was often hostile and he wanted our behavior beyond reproach. It would be years before I understood the emotional toll of repressing anger and natural frustration.
That summer was symbolic because it marked the first steps on the road from Richmond. In subsequent years, traveling with Ron Charity and others, I learned the importance of camaraderie. Blacks could not eat in restaurants, so we brought our fried chicken, potato salad and rolls around the car. Spending weekends as a guest in someone's house taught me more about social graces than I could have ever learned hanging around the corner of 2nd and Leaf streets.
Daddy continued to stress his sense of ethics. On one occasion I got into an argument while playing an adult at Brook Field. "I bet I can do it this way," I shouted, loud enough for Daddy to hear. He stormed out to the court.
"I don't ever want to hear you make a bet with an adult again," he warned. Daddy wasn't against wagering, just against the idea of challenging someone older.
When I was about 11, Ron Charity and other members of the Richmond Racquet Club took a group of us to see our first pro match. We sat in the one-dollar bleacher seats and soaked in the artistry of Ken Rosewall, Pancho Segura, Pancho Gonzales and Rex Hartwig. When the match was over, we were too shy to go up to them for autographs. While kids crowded around the stars and bombarded them with questions and requests for autographs, we hung back. But Pancho Gonzales replaced Ron Charity as my new idol that day.
My first 17 years set the stage for the way I view the world. I grew up as an underdog, so I rent from Avis instead of Hertz now. When I played against white juniors, I felt I was fighting assumptions about black inferiorities. Dr. Johnson tried to combat our insecurities by making "the white boys" the ultimate opponent.
"You're not going to beat those white boys playing like that," he would say. "Hit that to a white boy and you'll go home early," was another of his pet phrases.
Knowing that I would not be admitted to certain tournaments protected me from direct rebuffs. No player ever refused to appear on court with me. No official ever called me a name. But the indirect rebuffs and innuendos left their scars.
Not all of my encounters were harsh. During the National Interscholastics in Charlottesville, Butch Newman, Cliff Buchholz and Charlie Pasarell asked me to join them at a movie. I turned them down because I knew I wouldn't get in -- but the guys wouldn't take no for an answer. When we got to the theater, the reaction was predictable.
"You can't go in," the woman in the ticket booth said. I wasn't surprised by her attitude. But I was slightly elated when Cliff said, "Well, if he can't go in, none of us will go." And all of us left.
That summer, Daddy and Dr. Johnson faced their own decision. I had won a number of important regional titles and was ranked among the top junior players in the country. Ever the realist, Daddy knew there were few opportunities for a tennis player to make a living from his sport (this was in the days before open tennis). He knew the obstacles I would face as a black tennis player; yet he knew that I was the best young black to come along since Althea Gibson and that he had an obligation to give me an opportunity to go as far as I could. My peers, the juniors who had become friends in many cases, would continue to progress. The Californians, for example, could play all year. To keep up with them, I had to be able to play winter tennis. There were no such opportunities in Richmond.
The solution was to spend my senior year in high school in St. Louis, Mo., at the home of Richard Hudlin, a good friend of Dr. Johnson and another tennis buff. The move was practical, because, each summer, I had roamed farther and farther away from home. St. Louis would be the final break with Richmond.