The racquet and the pen

Guest post by Eric Allen Hall

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet,” said Toni Morrison, “then you must write it.” Arthur Ashe would do just that.  Following his retirement from tennis in 1980, Ashe “felt a subtle but pervasive dissatisfaction with [his] life. . . and a deep confusion about what the rest of it would, and should, look like.” His old friend Jefferson Rogers, a civil rights activist and faculty member at Florida Memorial College, soon lent Ashe some clarity. Rogers offered him a teaching position at the historically black college. Ashe had always wanted to teach.

His honors course on black athletes and society allowed him to mentor a small group of African-American students, and this excited him even more than the act of teaching. “In the classroom,” noted Ebony, “he is a tough, no-nonsense kind of instructor who tries to impress upon students the importance of understanding and dealing with their academic responsibilities.” Yet Ashe had difficulty finding materials on African-American athletes. Books and scholarly articles on Jack Johnson, Rube Foster, Jesse Owens, Althea Gibson, and others simply did not exist. Through his own experiences, Ashe understood the ways in which black athletes had challenged the color line and been at the forefront of the Black Freedom Movement. Their stories needed to be told, and Ashe resolved “to write THE authoritative history of the black American athlete.”

Although he believed the project would take about two years to complete, Ashe quickly discovered what a massive undertaking he had begun. He and his team of assistants started interviewing former and current athletes, coaches, administrators, and sportswriters. They contacted archivists and launched a media campaign asking the public for help. As Ashe delved deeper into the history of black athletes, his brother Johnnie observed a change in the former tennis star. “It did more than energize him,” Johnnie explained. “It gave him a new purpose, a means by which he could make contributions . . . He’d say, ‘The same problems I went through, Jack Johnson went through, Joe Louis went through.’ ”

In 1988, Warner/Amistad Books published Ashe’s three-volume work, A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete Since 1946. Ashe sold 11,000 copies alone in the first month of publication. Critics lauded A Hard Road to Glory. “The point Ashe makes,” wrote Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times, “is the black athlete didn’t just roll out of bed with his ability.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and popular historian David Halberstam read A Hard Road to Glory as “a cry of protest in which ancient sins are revealed.” “The book,” he noted, “is a compelling history of prejudice and meanness, of honor and dishonor, a book both about sports and not about sports.” Nelson Mandela read A Hard Road to Glory while locked away in prison. Ashe reveled in telling the stories of black athletes, both their achievements and their struggles. “I would think,” he mused, “this is more important than any tennis titles.”

As we once again celebrate and reflect upon Black History Month, it is important to honor those who made history, but it is equally important to recognize those who wrote it. The great African-American historian John Hope Franklin was forced to work alone in a makeshift reading room at an archive in North Carolina because of his race. He had to go without lunch every Saturday at the Library of Congress in 1951 because no restaurant would serve him. “The world of the Negro scholar is indescribably lonely,” Franklin conceded. Yet “for a Negro scholar searching for truth, the search for food in the city of Washington was one of the minor inconveniences.” Franklin would go on to write and make history.  Years later, so would Ashe.

Eric Allen Hall is an assistant professor in the history department at Georgia Southern University, Statesboro and author of Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era, published by Johns Hopkins.