Historian Writes First Comprehensive Biography of Tennis Legend and Civil Rights Icon Arthur Ashe

Book cover for

Book cover for “Arthur Ashe: A Life” by USF St. Petersburg professor Ray Arsenault.

(Aug. 21, 2018) – While Arthur Ashe gained fame for his brilliance on the tennis court, it was his commitment to advancing causes such as civil rights, education, AIDS awareness and ending apartheid in South Africa that cemented his status as an American icon.

Acclaimed historian and USF St. Petersburg professor Ray Arsenault has written the first comprehensive biography of Ashe, charting his transformation from a shy African-American boy from segregated Virginia to a cosmopolitan figure who transformed the world of sports and activism.

This revealing look at Ashe’s life is based on nine years of extensive research, including more than 150 interviews with the tennis star’s family, friends and tennis rivals. Released on August 21, the book coincides with the 50th Anniversary of Ashe’s victory at the first U.S. Open, when he became the first African American man to win a Grand Slam tennis title.

“Ashe’s life is an amazing story, and there is nobody else quite like him in the history of sports with respect to what he was able to accomplish and the personal code of ethics he lived by,” said Arsenault. “During my interviews with those who knew him, almost to a person they said that he was the most inspiring person they met in their lifetime. Several of them broke down crying during our conversations.”

Born in 1943, Ashe was one of the state’s most talented tennis players by the age of eleven. Jim Crow restrictions initially barred him from competing with whites, but in 1960 he won the National Junior Indoor singles title and eventually received a tennis scholarship to UCLA. In 1968, he won both the U.S. Amateur and the first U.S. Open title, rising to the number one tennis player in the nation. He later became one of the world’s most successful tennis stars, winning the Australian Open in 1970 and Wimbledon in 1975. He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1985.

During his tennis career, Ashe found a passion and a voice as a human rights activist, philanthropist and writer. He was a contributor to The Washington Post. He founded the National Junior Tennis League, in which he worked tirelessly to provide tennis opportunities to underprivileged youth. In the 1970s and 1980s, he gained renown as an advocate for sportsmanship, education, racial equality and the elimination of apartheid in South Africa. Twice he was arrested during public protests; once during an anti-apartheid rally in front of the South African Embassy, and later while picketing the White House in support of Haitian refugees.

Starting in 1979, Ashe dealt with a serious heart condition that led to multiple surgeries and blood transfusions, one of which left him HIV-positive. Diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, he kept his illness private until the final year of his life. During that year, he devoted much of his time to AIDS-awareness activism as he awaited his death, which came in February 1993, at the age of 49.

“He handled his illness with such grace and courage. There was not a hint of self-pity or complaints of ‘why me.’ He just had a deep wisdom that very few people achieve,” said Arsenault.

Historian and USF Professor Ray Arsenault.

Historian and USF Professor Ray Arsenault.

This is Arsenault’s third book in a trilogy on civil rights history. The first was “Freedom Riders,” which documented the events of 1961 when more than 400 black and white Americans risked their lives by traveling together on buses and trains through the Deep South. The book was made into a PBS American Experience film, which won three Emmys and has been seen by more than fifty million people.

The second book – “ The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America,” – focused on the great African American singer and her fight to sing at Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall in 1939. Barred by the Hall’s owners, the Daughters of the American Revolution, she eventually performed in front of the Lincoln Memorial before an interracial audience of 75,000, providing the nation with an iconic moment in America’s long struggle for civil rights.

“We pride ourselves on being a University that conducts research for the public good, and that is what Dr. Arsenault’s work has greatly contributed to,” said USF St. Petersburg Interim Regional Chancellor Martin Tadlock. “Through his biography of Arthur Ashe, he once again shines a light on courage in the face of adversity and illuminates civil rights history and issues that still resonate today.”

Of all of the historical characters that Arsenault has studied, Ashe comes the closest to being an exemplary role model, Arsenault writes, paving the way for today’s athletes to speak out on controversial public issues and fight for social justice.

“Arthur knocked down walls and built bridges, finding greatness beyond the lines.”

The biography has already received positive reviews in such media outlets as: