Tennis Icon Arthur Ashe’s Ties to Enslaved North Carolinians Add Twist to Asheville Monument Controversy

It’s been a year of upheavals, both in society and within the world of pro sports. The Black Lives Matter movement has inspired athletes using their voices to demand racial equity. A compelling example recently arose regarding a racist monument in Asheville, North Carolina. The case dovetailed with tennis legend Arthur Ashe in an interesting way.

Let’s look at Ashe’s career and dedication to social justice, before delving into his relationship to the current Asheville monument controversy.

Arthur Ashe’s tennis career and social justice efforts

Tennis player Arthur Ashe at Wimbledon in 1969
Arthur Ashe at Wimbledon in 1969 | Harry Dempster/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ashe’s tennis career spanned about 17 years. It began in 1963 when Ashe became the first black tennis player to play on the U.S. Davis Cup Team. In 1968, Ashe accomplished a more amazing feat, becoming the first black player to win the U.S. Open. By his career’s end in 1980, he also won two other majors: the 1970 Australian Open and 1975 Wimbledon.

By the time he retired in 1980, Ashe had done more than establish himself as one of the greatest tennis players of his generation. He also blazed the trail for all black tennis players of later generations. Ashe used his platform to speak out, with a focus on civil rights and African-American history.

After his retirement, Ashe’s commitment to racial equity causes only increased. He fought for causes like ending South African apartheid, supporting Haitian refugees, and improving education for black youth. Ashe also wrote a groundbreaking three-volume book titled A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete.

Asheville’s monument controversy amidst the Black Lives Matter movement

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Since 2017, the city of Asheville has been debating what to do about the Vance Monument located downtown. This 75-foot-tall granite obelisk serves to honor the legacy of Zebulon Baird Vance, who was governor of North Carolina during the Civil War. Vance was a staunch Confederate, as well as a slave owner himself.

Calls to remove the monument have only increased in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s deaths. In July the city put a shroud over the obelisk, hiding it from view. Yet no long-term plans for its removal exist. Some advocates even argue that the obelisk should be transformed into a giant tennis racket in honor of Ashe.

The Arthur Ashe twist in Asheville

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Ashe’s link to the city of Asheville is admittedly indirect. But it’s also present in the tennis star’s very name. Ashe was born and raised in Virginia, reports Citizen-Times. However, genealogical research traces his family’s name back an astonishing 11 generations. His first forebears in America were slaves owned by former North Carolina governor Samuel Ashe.

Specifically, Arthur Ashe was a descendant of a woman named Amar, who along with her daughter Tabb were taken from West Africa to America in 1735, reports Richmond Magazine. The practice at that time dictated that slaves received their owner’s name. Samuel Ashe’s name also ultimately went to the town of Asheville.

Now, however, there are those who want to change that name entirely as a token of racial equity. After all, they argue, why should acknowledge slave owners and racists continue to be celebrated through American place names? A smaller portion of social justice advocates argues that it might be OK to keep Asheville’s name — and instead to officially change its namesake.

In other words, instead of being named after slaveowner Samuel Ashe, Asheville can now claim to be named after Arthur Ashe. While it’s probably a longshot, one thing remains clear: Arthur Ashe’s legacy as a pioneering civil rights advocate deserves a celebrated place in history.