On April 6, 1992, Arthur Ashe, the pioneering Black tennis pro who had retired from the sport two years prior—after winning the first U.S. Open in 1968 and Wimbledon in 1975—got a call from a USA Today reporter asking whether the rumors were true that he had AIDS. Two days later, angry that the paper was about to expose a secret he had lived with since 1988, Ashe called a press conference in midtown Manhattan to announce that he had the condition. By his side were his wife, photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, New York City mayor and close friend David Dinkins, three doctors and an attorney.
"Beginning with my admittance to New York Hospital for brain surgery in September 1988, some of you heard that I had tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. That is indeed the case,” said Ashe, as reported by The New York Times, adding: “I am angry that I was put in the position of having to lie if I wanted to protect my privacy…. I didn’t commit any crime. I’m not running for public office. I should be able to reserve the right to keep things like that private.” At one point, he broke down crying and his wife came and stood by his side.
Ten months later, on February 6, 1993, Ashe—who contracted HIV from one of several blood transfusions he’d had years before during cardiac surgery—died at age 49 of AIDS-related pneumonia, leaving behind his wife and young daughter, Camera (named in honor of her mother’s profession). His funeral was held at the Arthur Ashe Youth Center in Richmond, Virginia, where he was born, and his body lay in state at the Virginia governor’s mansion. A few months later, in June, President Bill Clinton posthumously awarded him the Medal of Freedom.
In addition to paving the way for future Black tennis pros, Ashe devoted much of his life to civil and human rights activism. He was arrested in 1985 for protesting apartheid in South Africa. (In 1973, he’d become the first Black athlete to be granted a visa by that country to compete there, even though he wasn’t allowed to stay in a hotel.)
He was arrested again in 1992 for protesting the Bush administration’s treatment of Haitian refugees. Once he went public as someone living with AIDS, he became an AIDS activist as well, founding the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS to raise awareness about the condition and promote safe sex and sex education in schools. (He also devoted himself to dispelling the myth that only gay or bisexual men could get HIV.) A few months before his death, he also founded the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health, to address racial health disparities.
In 1988, Ashe published A Hard Road to Glory, a deeply researched three-volume history of Black athletes in America. After retiring from tennis, he worked for ABC Sports and HBO as a tennis commentator and also occasionally wrote a column for The Washington Post.
Ashe went public with his AIDS diagnosis only a few months after another sports legend, basketball wiz Magic Johnson, went public with his. Talking about his diagnosis, Ashe said, “I knew even before Magic that if I wanted to go public I could possibly help. But I wasn’t ready to go public with it because I had some things that I wanted to do, unfettered, so to speak. I knew that with the public still learning about AIDS, that would have been impossible, once you go public.”
Ashe handled his AIDS announcement with the same cool composure he displayed on the tennis courts while competing in a country that was still racially segregated—and sometimes barred him from playing—when his career began. In a 1992 interview with Lynn Redgrave, he said of fellow tennis star John McEnroe, who was known for his on-court tantrums, “McEnroe had the emotional freedom to be a bad boy. I never had that emotional freedom. If I’d been like that…the tennis world would’ve dragged me out of it. My race wouldn’t allow me to be like that.”
In the same interview, he said that the previous few Christmases, he and his daughter had visited the pediatric AIDS ward at Harlem Hospital to give away toys. Of his diagnosis, he said, “I fight any self-pity. I don’t want it from anyone. I’m not afraid of dying.”
He added: “There’s always hope…and that hope should not be a selfish hope. For me, the hope is that maybe there’s no cure for AIDS in time for me, but [there will be] for everyone else.”
The main stadium at the USTA National Tennis Center in Queens, New York City, where the U.S. Open is played, is named Arthur Ashe Stadium. In 2005, a postage stamp was issued in his honor.