I've always been a bit of a bibliophile," says Arthur Ashe, the former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion who, in the 1960s, started collecting books written by and about African-Americans. "In the '60s there was a general recognition among blacks that much of our history, many of our mementos and objets d'art, were being snapped up by white collectors."
Not until the early '80s did Ashe start searching for sports titles—when he was doing the research for his three-volume history of black athletes in America, A Hard Road to Glory, which was published in 1988. Ashe was startled to find only one pertinent work on the topic, The Negro in Sports, written by Edwin B. Henderson in 1939 and updated in '49.
He eventually secured a copy of both editions of Henderson's work, paying $40 for the '38 version and $35 for the '49 version. "I wouldn't mind having 20 copies," says Ashe.
It is those words that separate the ones who must own from the rest of us, who are content to read books and pass them along. Ashe must own, and own he does—he has every contemporary book on African-American athletes. He can look up at a top shelf and say, "I have seven different books about Muhammad Ali, five or six about Joe Louis and four on Jesse Owens."
As a serious collector, Ashe does most of his ordering of hard-to-find books from catalogs. Rare-book dealers in New York, Boston and Chicago supply listings, and friends keep an eye on the market for him. Still, it's a competitive pursuit. "Rule Number One is, Look and order quickly," says Ashe. "If you don't go through catalogs the minute they arrive, you won't get what you want."
Every collector has at least one tale of serendipity, and Ashe is no exception. For several years he lived in Mount Kisco, a Westchester County suburb of New York City. The town, founded by Quakers, had been part of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War, a fact Ashe learned from his neighbor. The neighbor, the 10th generation of his Quaker family to live on the same piece of land, also had an attic full of books that he and his ancestors had collected, and he invited Ashe to help himself to any books he might want. That's how Ashe acquired a cache of rare books about Abraham Lincoln.
Growing up in Richmond, says Ashe, "we were only allowed to read the 'safe' black literature in school. We read Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Native Son, by Richard Wright. Marcus Garvey was not part of the curriculum, and I didn't even hear of W.E.B. Du Bois until I was well into high school.
"My favorite was Uncle Tom's Cabin. It's a haunting story for a southerner, and it addresses something that I saw early on and that I try to dispel in young blacks today. That is, if racism is posited as a daunting and formidable obstacle, it is all too easy to say 'the hell with it.' The hero in Uncle Tom's Cabin had to eat a lot of crow and go through life hat in hand, but ultimately he survived, and succeeded."
The shelves of Ashe's library in Manhattan, where he lives today, are filled with books about blacks who have survived and succeeded. He considers Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, the most significant U.S. black athlete ever. Along with several books on Johnson, Ashe has a medallion, minted in Connecticut in 1910, that commemorates the Johnson-Jim Jeffries title fight, which Johnson won to retain his crown.
Ashe's collection is a work in progress, and so is his writing. An occasional sports columnist for The Washington Post, he has been commissioned by the New York Historical Society to contribute essays on, among other subjects, tennis and Jackie Robinson for the first New York City Encyclopedia. Ashe is also working on a book for the serious tennis fan that will include the questions he has most often been asked about the game.