Arthur Robert Ashe Jr. was born on July 10, 1943, near Richmond, Virginia, in one of the local hospitals that cared for black citizens. The hospitals in much of the U.S. were not integrated; segregation was the rule for medical care. Integrated schools were also unheard of in the South, so Ashe attended an all-black school. Even the playgrounds of his childhood years were segregated, and he watched from a distance as white children played tennis, a game that immediately fascinated him. In 1947, his father was made superintendent of the blacks-only Brook Field, a public park with a pool, tennis courts, basketball courts and baseball fields. The Ashes moved to the caretaker's cottage in the center of Brook Field, which soon became young Arthur's entire universe.
Ashe was a sickly kid who suffered from measles, chickenpox, mumps, whooping cough, and diphtheria, among other illnesses, which left him thin and weak. He'd always been interested in sports but, with arms and legs "thin as soda straws," as he described himself in his 1967 autobiography, Advantage Ashe, he was too light for football and too slow for track. He began to hit tennis balls. Then, in 1950, about a year after he'd first picked up a tennis racquet, his mother, Mattie Cordell Cunningham Ashe, died unexpectedly. Mattie Ashe had gone to the hospital for a minor surgery but succumbed to toxemia, a poisoning of the blood. The seven-year-old Ashe was devastated and refused to attend her burial. In order to cope, he grew somewhat emotionally distant and poured his energy into his schoolwork and tennis, and excelled at both.
By channeling his grief into his tennis game, Ashe had found a way to make adversity work in his favor. He did the same with his schoolwork. Attending a segregated elementary school in Richmond, he and his classmates were always taught they had to work harder than white children in order to succeed. "Discrimination plus the bias women faced in the job market combined to provide us with some truly remarkable teachers," he told the Chicago Tribune.
"Every day we got the same message drummed into us. 'Despite discrimination and lynch mobs,' teachers told us, 'some black folks have always managed to find a way to succeed. Okay, this may not be the best-equipped school; that just means you're going to have to be a little bit better prepared than white kids and ready to seize any opportunity that comes your way.'" Ashe was further encouraged by his father, a strict but loving disciplinarian who steeped in his son the virtues of morality.