Arthur Ashe: From Skinny Kid To Champion And Freedom Fighter

Jan 9, 2019

Arthur Ashe is known best as a tennis champion who achieved many firsts, including becoming the first and only African-American man to win a singles title at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Australian Open. But many do not know about his early years. Before he was acclaimed, Ashe was a small kid from Richmond getting soundly beat at the Algonquin Tennis Club in Durham’s Hayti District. The club sponsored annual tennis tournaments in the 1920s that would see the likes of Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson. 

Durham native Irwin Holmes attended those tournaments and played against Ashe. He will share his story and reflect on this period in Durham’s history at an upcoming panel discussion called “The Legacy of African Americans and Tennis in the Triangle,” which takes place Sunday, Jan.13 from 3 p.m.  to 6 p.m. at North Carolina Central University's School of Education. Holmes joins host Frank Stasio to preview some of these stories.

Holmes’ daughter Sherri joins the conversation to talk about her efforts to preserve and highlight the stories of African-Americans in North Carolina through public events and the arts. Holmes runs the Triangle Friends of African American Arts which will host the Triangle African American Theater Preview on Jan. 20.

Also joining the conversation is Jerome Davis, the artistic director of Burning Coal Theatre in Raleigh. From Jan.24 to Feb. 10 the theater will stage “Ashe In Johannesburg,” an original production inspired by Ashe’s trip to play tennis in South Africa during apartheid.  

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

Irwin Holmes on young Arthur Ashe:

I heard of Arthur Ashe when he was 3 years old from a friend who was playing in a tournament in Richmond and came back talking about this young, 3-year-old kid who was on the court hitting balls like a grown man. And it was Arthur Ashe … Arthur was an unusual player who at that point was so small — even though he could hit the ball like a grown man … At age 15 when his weight finally caught up a bit, suddenly [he] was beating every black male tennis player in the United States decisively.

Irwin Holmes on the tennis culture in Durham:

Durham was a special place for various reasons … We had in Durham lots of tennis courts, which was unusual that [they] were available to us. Some of them were in the public school system, some were in the recreation department for the city of Durham. And then the third place, which is really unusual, we had a private, for black only, black [tennis club] with black tennis players … that had tennis courts available particularly for the members, but occasionally they’d let a little black kid from the ghetto sneak on the court and play.

Tennis goes back in Durham a hundred years with African-Americans. That is why Arthur Ashe and national players would come to Durham. - Sherri Holmes

Sherri Holmes on her upcoming panel and the black women of tennis:

One of the panelists actually is a woman — her name is Bonnie Logan — who integrated the women's professional tennis tour … [She] grew up in Durham. So, we've got some people with some great experiences. And with tennis, you know, particularly for women, the top 10 is the top women making money in sports. Serena Williams is making $18 million. And so rather than having everybody go into basketball and football, you have, you know, tennis where you can get college scholarships. If you want to go into business, there are a lot of deals that happen on the tennis court. So tennis really is a great sport to play, and we're hoping that one of the effects of this will be people will be excited about tennis in the Triangle.