In spite of his
limited means, Dr. Johnson is a true philanthropist. He has helped young Negro
players for two decades now; National Women's Champion Althea Gibson was
previously his most famous graduate. A bunch of them could be found this
summer, too, playing on the court next to his comfortable frame house in a
mixed neighborhood of Lynchburg. There were Negro boys and girls from New York
and Durham, N.C., from Dayton, Ohio and from right next door, and a white girl
and a Japanese-American girl from California. Dr. J., as they call him, puts
them up, feeds them (Arthur, Dr. J. recalls, had a weird craving for rice),
teaches them and carries them around to tournaments. They practice and play on
his court—all day and even into the evening under the lights. The younger kids
from the neighborhood swarm about with Dr. J.'s grandchildren—into the box
bushes and the flower garden, over the jungle gym and even onto the court. But
in all this pandemonium somebody is always slugging a tennis ball. Somebody is
It was the same
sort of sticky southern summer when Arthur first came up to Lynchburg at the
age of 10. "He was the youngest in the group and so skinny he looked like
he had rickets," Dr. Johnson says. Ashe was not as good or as natural as
many of the others, but he was quick, he had fast eyes and he always worked
The only time he
ever caused any trouble was upon his arrival, when he refused to do anything
that clashed with what Ronald Charity had taught him. Dr. Johnson called
Arthur's father, who the next morning made the three-hour bus trip up into the
Virginia Piedmont, through Prince Edward County and then past Appomattox to
Lynchburg, where he patiently explained to his son that it was Charity who had
sent him here. He might as well come home if he was not going to do what Dr.
Johnson said. Arthur listened to his father. He thought it over and stayed.
"I have never
once in all my life talked back to my father," Arthur says. "My younger
brother, Johnny—he's in the Marines ready to go to Vietnam now—he'd question
him sometimes, and I'd shudder. I'd feel awful if I ever did anything at all
bad that my father found out about. He trusts me completely."
Mattie Cunningham Ashe, died when he was 6 following an operation. Ronald
Charity remembers the lazy Sunday morning. He was sitting out by the court with
a group of kids when Mr. Ashe came out of the house and called Arthur. Charity
watched the skinny little boy go to his father and then into the house with
him, where he learned the news. "Well, Daddy, as long as we're
together," Arthur said, "everything will be all right."
maintains that nothing Arthur has done since has made him so proud. "Look
at these trophies," he says, his arm sweeping over the living room.
"I'd just as soon take them, the ones in the attic and that placard from
the city, and throw them all into the junk heap if he ever did anything to
disgrace me." Mr. Ashe is never just melodramatic. He took Arthur the first
day he went to the Baker Street school, ambling at his son's pace. It took 10
minutes. "That gave Arthur 10 minutes to get to school and 10 minutes to
get back. Not 11," he explains. "And he was never late. I never laid a
switch to him."
Mr. Ashe refused
to farm his sons out to relatives but instead brought in a housekeeper until he
remarried a few years later. He was determined to have a family life, as he had
not had as a boy, and he was keeping a promise to his wife. "It was the
last time I spoke to her," he says. "She looked up and said, *If
anything should happen to me, Arthur, the boys are yours. I didn't born the
children for your mother, and I didn't born them for mine. I born the children
for you, Arthur.' "
It is his mother
that Arthur takes after, in manner and appearance. On the mantel there is a
picture of Mattie Ashe, an elegant, lovely lady in a long pink dress. The
delicate features and the light skin are almost perfectly repeated in her
oldest son. "Arthur Jr. has always been just like her," Mr. Ashe says.
"Timid, quiet. She wouldn't swap three words with anyone. She wouldn't
argue with a soul."
resemblance, Ashe's determination and ease, as well as his athletic ability,
most surely come from his paternal forebears, especially Edward Ashe, the
amazing man who was Arthur Sr.'s father. And Arthur Jr. shares something else
with his grandfather—an ambiguous racial situation. For in a race-conscious
society Edward Ashe had to manage as neither white nor black. He was half
American Indian, half Mexican and known as Pink Ashe. "He wore a big,
turned-up mustache out to here," Arthur Sr. says.
Pink Ashe was
never fazed. He was a master carpenter and bricklayer, and such a craftsman
that he could pick his own jobs. He was a ladies' man, possessed of a fine
singing voice and an impressive capacity for whiskey. Arthur Sr. had six
brothers and sisters, but altogether Pink Ashe fathered 27 children. Mr. Ashe
can remember one afternoon when five of the other 20 children showed up out of
the blue from Washington, D.C. in a Model T. Pink was so perturbed that he
promptly disappeared, and Mr. Ashe heard nothing of Pink until 11 years later,
when Mr. Ashe walked into a revival meeting in Durham, N.C. and found his
father singing louder than anyone else.