In Westchester County, N.Y., in a majestic stone house overlooking fields and farms and the distant Catskills, Arthur Ashe takes from his shelf a 1901 book entitled ``Is the Negro a Beast?'' He lays it on a gray marble dining room table doubling as a desk, next to an 1890s picture from Harper's Weekly, part of the magazine's ``Coon Town'' series. The picture shows blacks, each with an addled look and idiot grin, engaged in some disorganized play with a bat and ball; it's as if they're trying to play baseball but cannot fathom the rules. With these exhibits providing stark and silent testimony on the attitudes of the times, Mr. Ashe makes his case that Jack Johnson, heavyweight boxing champion from 1908 to 1915, was the most significant black athlete in history.
``In the period after Reconstruction, whites tried to categorize blacks as subhuman,'' says Ashe. ``The theory was that whites were superior in both body and mind to Negroes - or any other people.
``The one position in all of sportsdom that epitomized this superiority was the world heavyweight championship.''
If that title were to fall out of white hands, says Ashe, describing white thinking at the time, the theory would be shot - whites would have to reassess their prejudice; blacks would have gained incalculable self-respect. He calls the 1910 championship fight between Johnson - who had won the title two years earlier in Australia - and Jim Jeffries - the ``Great White Hope,'' the champion who came out of retirement to defend white honor - the ``most awaited event in the entire history of black America.''
``No one knew Abraham Lincoln was going to free the slaves,'' says Ashe. ``That wasn't awaited. By 1910, the literacy level among blacks was higher. Black newspapers were reaching throughout the country, even the white newspapers were writing a lot on the fight. It was the most awaited event in black history.
``I can just imagine that here I am - black. Maybe sitting around a pot-bellied stove somewhere in the rural South. And hearing that Jack Johnson has just won the heavyweight championship. I've got to feel 10-feet tall. And let's say that I'm 70 years old. What can I think of in my life that would have made me feel 10-feet tall? There's nothing to name. This is it.
``Here is the black man going up against the white man. And the black man not only came out ahead. He pulverized him. In public. And destroyed a myth that had been held, maybe for centuries. Maybe since slavery began.''