State tennis champions and runner-ups for Virginia Black high schools (Arthur Ashe, back row, fourth from the left), April 1960. Photo courtesy of Doug Smith.
Arthur Ashe was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1943. Virginia, like many southern states at that time, enforced segregation laws that ensured the legal separation of Blacks and Whites in public facilities, such as schools, churches, train cars, bathrooms, and public parks. Brook Field Park, where Ashe began playing tennis, was a segregated park, developed with federal funds from Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. It served African Americans in North Richmond, who had little access to public parks, offering tennis courts, baseball field, basketball courts, a pool, and outdoor space. Ashe’s family had moved to a house on the park’s ground in 1947 when his father, Arthur Ashe Sr., was hired by the City of Richmond to be the caretaker of the park. Ashe would meet his tennis coach Ron Charity on the Brook Field courts and as his tennis skills improved, it became apparent that in order to continue to develop, he needed to play and compete beyond the Brook Field tennis community. A neighboring park, Byrd Park, hosted a youth tournament, but Ashe was often turned away as the public tennis courts were restricted to Whites only. Ashe never got a chance to play at Byrd Park as a child, but returned in 1968 as part of the Davis Cup team, playing an all-Black British West Indies team, months later he would win the US Open.
For many young African American athletes, whose interest in sports moved beyond a passing leisure activity, finding ways to navigate the limitations of segregation was key to ensuring quality training and the opportunity to compete. A number of formal and informal networks developed to aid this process such as, Dr. Robert Walter Johnson’s tennis training camp, which Ashe attended from 1953 to 1960. Each summer Dr. Johnson invited young African American tennis players to his home in Lynchburg, VA to train. The American Tennis Association (ATA) the oldest African American sports organization in the US was founded in 1916, to create a tournament circuit for African Americans tennis players who were restricted from playing in country clubs and USLTA tournaments. By 1955 Ashe started to win a number of titles in the ATA tournaments. And the Virginia Intercollegiate Association (VIA) (see photo above) was established in 1954 to support African American high school students and their inter-high school athletic competitions. Ashe also found ways to compete in integrated tournaments in neighboring states.
During one integrated tournament in West Virginia in 1960 Ashe met follow Richmond tennis player, Tom Chewning. The two hadn’t met before despite their rise in the local Richmond tennis scene. After returning to Richmond from the tournament, Chewning, and Ashe, with the help of their families, would meet at Brook Field to play despite the segregation laws. This meeting sparked a life long friendship. Below Chewning describes first meeting Ashe.
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Willis Samantha, A Place For Us, Richmond Magazine 12/12/18. Retrieved 7/2/2020 from https://richmondmagazine.com/news/richmond-history/a-place-for-us/
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