by Charles McGuigan
Saturday June 22 was a day for the ages, a moment of historic significance. The Boulevard’s name was formally changed to Arthur Ashe Boulevard, the culmination of a thirty year-long battle. Hundreds clogged the grounds surrounding the Virginia Museum of History & Culture (formerly the Virginia Historical Society) and spilled out into the broad boulevard that now bears the name of one of Richmond’s most beloved native sons. Arthur, of course, was one of the world’s greatest tennis players. He was the first African-American selected for the United States Davis Cup team, and the only black man ever to win three Grand Slam titles—at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open. In 1968, he won both the US Amateur and the US Open championships in the same year, something no one else has done before or since.
But Arthur was much more than an outstanding athlete. He was a teacher, a social activist, and a humanitarian. He was a major force in pressuring South Africa to end its despicable policy of apartheid, and was awarded, though posthumously, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was a tireless advocate for civil rights and racial equality, and was loved by the global community. This, too: he was a gentleman, and he was kind. As a boy growing up in Richmond, Arthur was prohibited from playing the sport he loved on the courts just a mile south of this spot where he was now being honored.
The Elegba Folklore Society’s percussion band played on traditional African instruments throughout the day, and if you listened closely, above the rhythm, you could hear a buzz and a hum that grew louder and then softer. It was neither cicadas nor swarming bees. High above the crowd, a military-sized drone swooped and hovered, circling the people below, sometimes moving rapidly as a hummingbird from one end of the gathering to the other. And on the roof of the old VHS two men, dressed in camouflage, stood stoically, surveying the crowd with binoculars. All to ensure, I’m guessing, that white supremacists or American-grown Nazis did not disrupt the proceedings.
Keynote speaker Congressman John Lewis, a freedom fighter who shed his own blood in the war for equality, said, “We cannot remake what happened 400 years ago, but we’re here today as one people, as one family.” Later in his speech, the Congressman from Georgia spoke of the power of nonviolence, but encouraged people to stand up for what they believe. “It’s time for us to get into trouble again,” Congressman Lewis said. “Good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Congressmen Bobby Scott and Don McEachin, of Virginia’s delegation, also spoke. Senator Tim Kaine remembered the controversy surrounding the placement of the Arthur Ashe statue on Monument Avenue a quarter century ago. “The decision to place the Arthur Ashe statue on Monument Avenue was a healing in a city, commonwealth and country that still needs healing to this day,” Senator Kaine said.
Later in his speech, the Senator added, “Naming is important. This is not a minor thing we are doing today. So many of the names that we live with were chosen by a tiny, tiny subset of people who do not represent the full community of our city, or state, or nation today. This is an act to rectify that.”
Governor Ralph Northam was there, and his speech sounded earnest, and in keeping with the promises he made after his blackface scandal. “African American history, black history, is American history,” he said. “And the way that we teach that history is inadequate and inaccurate.”
Throughout the seated audience there were scores of members of Arthur Ashe’s extended family. Perhaps the most moving words spoken from the lectern that day came from Arthur’s nephew, David Harris Jr. “Today,” he said. “We are letting the world know racism, discrimination, exclusionary tactics, lack of investment in our children, education and people is bankrupt.” The applause was long and deafening.
Mayor Levar Stoney mentioned the statue of Arthur Ashe created by sculptor Paul DiPasquale that stands at the intersection of Roseneath and Monument, and noted that Ashe is the only “champion” memorialized on Monument Avenue. “Our city is transforming,” he said. “It is changing its future, and triumphing over its past.
Levar, and a number of other speakers, also thanked Second District City Councilwoman Kim Gray for her role as the prime mover in the boulevard’s name change.
This all came on the heels of the VMFA’s announcement the week before the dedication that the museum would soon be home to a thirty-foot tall bronze equestrian sculpture by Kehinde Wiley. Called Rumors of War, the sculpture, which will be unveiled in in New York on September 27 and arrive in Richmond in the late fall, features a contemporary African American man astride a massive horse. It was inspired by Kehinde’s encounter with the J.E.B. Stuart monument while he was in Richmond during an exhibit of his work at the VMFA three years ago.
“The inspiration for Rumors of War is war is an engagement with violence,” Kehinde wrote of his work. “Art and violence have for an eternity held a strong narrative grip with each other. Rumors of War attempts to use the language of equestrian portraiture to both embrace and subsume the fetishization of state violence.”
It seems fitting that the statue’s final resting place will be on Arthur Ashe Boulevard at the entrance to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. There are only two other statues along the entire length of Arthur Ashe Boulevard, and its extension, Hermitage Road. Each memorializes one of America’s two Original Sins. Standing at the southern end of Arthur Ashe Boulevard is Christopher Columbus, whose supposed “discovery of America” indirectly led to the diaspora and genocide of Native cultures. On the opposite end of this boulevard there is a statue honoring General A.P. Hill who fought to preserve the enslavement of people of African origin.