By James Lewis
Alexandria, VA – Earl Lloyd and Arthur Ashe traveled similar paths from their native Virginia roots. They developed their values, love for sports, and keen sense of equality for all as young Black men in the segregated communities of Alexandria and Richmond, Virginia, respectively. They both came from families who raised them to reach for excellence in all things in which they were able to participate.
Earl found inspiration, direction, and a nurturing mentor in his high school coach Louis Johnson. Deprived of facilities, equipment, and financial support, Earl’s beloved Parker-Gray High School was filled with teachers and administrators like his coach who expected nothing but the best from and for him. His Black Alexandria community would give him a sense of pride and responsibility that helped drive him to excellence while in college. He did not want to let his family, friends, and supporters down. And he never did.
Arthur grew up in segregated Richmond with the same type of strong support system many years after Earl. His father was responsible for cleaning and caretaking the playground in Arthur’s neighborhood. Like Earl, Arthur was a bright student, and his Maggie Walker High School always supported his dreams of future success.
Because his father had the opportunity to run the tennis courts at the playground, Arthur flourished as a young prodigy. His talents were so obvious that he was sent to a prominent Black doctor in Lynchburg, VA, who had played and coached on the Black tennis circuit. This high-level instruction led to Arthur’s being offered a tennis scholarship at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Change came for Earl after he graduated college. Until the day in 1950 when Earl started his first practice with the D.C. National Basketball Association (NBA) team, he had never interacted with Whites. His self-confidence and preparation in the sport of basketball were key elements in his early success in an integrated setting. His values, taught and reinforced by his family and instructors, allowed him to play with selflessness and high character in this new environment.
Even though he was subjected to racist comments, insults, and taunts by several opponents and fans alike, Earl did not treat his White teammates with disdain. He truly helped change the world by conducting himself with dignity and discipline on and off the court. Society definitely took notice.
Arthur played in a more liberal environment in California. However, his sport was very much dictated and dominated by White society. He would later become a worldwide ambassador for human rights as he refused to play in countries that discriminated against Black tennis players. Arthur’s efforts were significant in changing South Africa’s apartheid laws. Much like Earl, Arthur would also become the first Black national team coach in a major league sport.
When traveling to cities throughout the NBA season, Earl was subjected to discrimination in housing and eating establishments. He often had to stay in Black hotels and eat at Black restaurants during the 1950s. But his teammates and coaches treated him with great respect and admiration.
One example of the true humanity displayed to Earl came when his coach offered to bring him food and eat with him in his hotel room. Earl never forgot that kind gesture. When Earl’s 1955 Syracuse National team won the NBA championship, a teammate jumped into Earl’s arms in celebration. That friend would later ask Earl to recommend a basketball player for his West Virginia University team. Earl recommended me, and in 1964 I broke the color barrier there.
Respect followed Earl throughout his playing career and into his coaching profession. Another teammate asked him to become the first Black scout and assistant coach in the history of the NBA. Earl lived a life of respect for others, and it was reciprocated in full throughout his later life and career.
One example of Earl’s heart for giving is told in the city of Detroit, where he lived for 40 years. Kids would call him Mr. Scholarship because he often assisted them in getting athletic and academic scholarships to college. He worked for the Police Athletic League, taking lessons he had learned in Alexandria and passing them forward.
When young people look at the beautiful bronze statue at Charles Houston Recreation Center for generations to come, they will not only know Earl Lloyd’s name, they will learn of his life—a life well lived and an inspiration for all dreamers to come. Earl never saw color until he saw it, and then he respected himself by not lowering his interactions with others. The real Earl Lloyd story is one of hope and grace and love, and you can see it all in his face standing 8 feet tall.
Welcome back home, Earl, as you left and taught and led with humility. Now your hometown has brought you back to say thank you! You and Arthur are both champions and citizens of the world, standing tall.
Zebra Readers are encouraged to visit the Alexandria African American Hall of Fame website to learn more about Earl Lloyd and his accomplishments: www.alexandriaafricanamericanhalloffame.org.