30 Jul 2018


Lost Capitol Hill: Block Party Tennis

Closing off the streets of Capitol Hill for a block party is a pretty frequent occurrence. Using the empty street for some kind of sports competition is de rigueur, as well. Much more rare, however, is when the athletes playing are nationally known, whether for their ability for sports, or otherwise.

However, just such an affair took place almost exactly 51 years ago, in early August, 1967. On that day, the 1300 block of North Carolina Avenue was cordoned off, not for grilling and a moonbounce, but for tennis. Sponsored by the President’s Council on Youth Opportunity as well as the D.C. Recreation Department’s Summer Enrichment Program, the event was to give local children the opportunity to swing a tennis racket – as well as to possibly receive gsome of the equipment that was to be given away.

The main draw, however, was Lieutenant Arthur Ashe (pictured). Already well-known as a tennis player, having reached the finals in the previous two Australian Championships, Ashe was still serving in the Army, as he had been a member of ROTC at UCLA.

While he was able to compete in numerous tournaments even while serving, Ashe on this day was wearing not his usual tennis whites, but rather his Army uniform. This probably did not hinder him too much, as at least one of his opponents was wearing a suit, as befit a member of the United States Senate.

For his main opponent was none other than Senator Robert Francis Kennedy. Unsurprisingly, Kennedy had been the last to arrive, but that had given Ashe the opportunity to knock balls back and forth with the assembled crowd. Once RFK arrived, he played four games with Ashe, as well as with the US indoor champion Charlie Passarell, and one further person who was apparently not important enough for the Washington Post to mention in the story they ran on the event on August 4.

Robert Kennedy on a playground in New York City in 1966. With him is Donald F. Benjamin (LOC)

There was also no indication of the score of the games, or how Senator Kennedy managed to acquit himself in the process. What did happen was that incoming “rain, hail, thunder and lightning” eventually put an end to the block party. There was a mad scramble to hand out the tennis rackets before the deluge swept everyone away, and the crowd dispersed, Ashe off to West Point, where he would work as a data processor, Kennedy back to the Senate.

Ashe, before he left, expressed hope that this would be the start of something bigger: “These one-shot deals don’t help. These people don’t know who I am. This must be followed up.” Hopefully, at the very least, those that were there would remember the day they met Ashe as he climbed up the tennis charts, winning Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open— as the Australian Championship was renamed the following year.

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