Booker T. Washington

Recently, a friend and I attended a beautiful ceremony at the flood wall to recognize the completion of murals honoring the Booker T. Washington School and its impact upon the history of Ashland. It was an emotionally moving and well-attended ceremony. I had known one of the school’s most distinguished teachers, Robert W. Ross, as well.

When I first came to Ashland almost fifty years ago, Professor Ross had already established himself as “Mr. Tennis” in the area. The name “Professor,” which he wore with considerable pride, had come from the fact that he had taught for many years at Booker T. Washington, the local high school for Black students. Everyone called him “Professor” and no one thought about calling him by any other name.

Professor Ross and his brother, according to local legend, had been the best tennis players in the area, when tennis was almost totally a white man’s game. After his retirement from teaching school, he assumed the job of supervising the tennis courts in Ashland’s Central Park, the only courts in town at that time. He ran the Central Park courts with dignity and firmness, giving lessons in his spare time. For several decades, almost all beginning players in Ashland got their start under his tutelage. As a regular Central Park tennis player, I got to know him well.

                        Local Tennis Courts

Since tennis courts were at a premium at that time in Ashland, he was kept busy moving people on and off the courts. When, at the end of an hour, he announced the time of day, play stopped immediately, and those who had been waiting to play stepped lively to the courts he had assigned. There was no questioning Professor Ross’s decisions. Bad language or unsportsmanlike conduct were not permitted on Professor Ross’s courts.

So, what was so remarkable about all of this? Hadn’t others done about the same? The answer to both questions is yes. But this was a black man in a town which was nearly all white in an era in which there wasn’t much interaction between the two groups. Professor Ross, nevertheless, had everyone’s respect and admiration. His race was not an issue. He was, as one man said, the best example of what race relations should be and how a gentleman should conduct himself on a tennis court, and it is safe to say that Ashland’s long history of excellence in tennis owes much to the foundation laid by Professor Robert W. Ross.

Let’s call him what he was: the Arthur Ashe of Ashland, Kentucky.

His son, Washington Ross, who died recently, was a Tuskegee Airman in World War II, reaching the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

                      Tuskegee Airmen

[Ernie Tucker, a regular contributor to Columnist with a View, lives in Ashland, Kentucky. He is a retired Professor of History at the Ashland Community & Technical College.]