Richmond gives Ashe final embrace Hometown honors hero it once shunned

February 10, 1993|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

RICHMOND, Va. -- The segregated court he learned to play tennis on is now covered by a post office building.

The home he was raised in no longer exists.

And the high school he once attended is shuttered.

But Richmond remembers its most famous native son.

Yesterday, Arthur Ashe's hometown mourned its late hero.

The city gave Ashe a line, a crush of 5,649 office workers, schoolchildren, politicians and tennis players, all waiting to pass an open mahogany coffin in the dining room of the Executive Mansion.

"This is a hero we might not see again," said Irma A. Britt, a retired teacher from nearby Goochland. "He went through struggles in his life. There just wasn't enough time for him. But look, just look, at all he accomplished. And look at this crowd."

As Ashe lay in state, the predominantly black crowd streamed past his open casket, which was set underneath a portrait of George Washington, between the flags of the United States and Virginia.

Today, more than 6,000 mourners are expected to attend the funeral for Ashe, 49, who died Saturday of AIDS-related pneumonia.

"The No. 1 reason people are here is because Arthur was a true gentleman," said Randy Ashe, first cousin to a tennis legend. "He was so calm and collected. The manner he spoke attracted everyone. He was a true gentleman."

L And Richmond, a city that once spurned him, now honored him.

The sun had long since set, and the line just built, yesterday, sweeping 100 yards through the Capitol Square, turning by the statue of Washington atop a horse, and then angling back, past the main library, over the cables from the six broadcast vans, finally ending a few yards from where it started by the wrought-iron gates in front of the beige brick mansion.

The state flag was lowered to half-staff.

As the mourners passed Ashe, who was dressed in a dark gray suit, white shirt and patterned tie, recorded organ music played. State troopers stood at attention, and several state workers, who helped usher the crowd, wore red ribbons, signifying the battle against AIDS.

Ed Naamon, a New York emergency room physician, was there first at 1:45 p.m., more than three hours before the gates of the mansion opened.

"In life, he meant a lot to me," Naamon said. "He was always out there, by himself. He carried it off. He had friends across nations, across cultures. He was a leader. I liked his style. Even at the end. With AIDS, he did the most he could, given his circumstances. A lot of people with that disease want to crawl into a hole. But Arthur had courage."

Ralph Saunders, a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia, carried a bouquet of roses. He was there, he said, "to represent my family."

"Arthur was a definer of the concept of African-American," he said. "He was a trailblazer from a segregated circuit. There was ++ an identification with Arthur. He was the first and he went the furthest."

But it wasn't Ashe's accomplishments on the tennis court, his Grand Slam victories and Davis Cup triumphs, that lured the crowd. Many were struck by his stands on civil rights, his unceasing quest for justice, and, his last gallant battle with AIDS.

"He had a lot of courage, not to be defeated, whether he was trying to win a tennis match or beat a disease," said Helena Harris of Richmond.

The crowd waited patiently and respectfully as Ashe's family, including his wife Jeanne and daughter Camera, spent two hours inside the mansion. Jeanne, a photographer, frequently snapped pictures as friends of the family were ushered into the mansion.

"Arthur's wife is doing fine," said Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder Jr., a friend of the family. "She is showing such great composure. That's a reflection of her and a reflection of Arthur. And Camera, that little girl is bearing the mantle so well."

Wilder and Ashe were boyhood friends who battled racism in their own ways and rose to prominence in different fields.

Wilder stayed in Virginia, changed laws, and made history by becoming the country's first elected black governor.

Segregated playing conditions forced Ashe to leave town in high school, and it was only in recent years that he began to make peace with Richmond. There is now an athletic center that bears his name, and it is there, today, where Ashe's funeral service will be held.

Last summer, the governor and the tennis star had dinner at the Executive Mansion. According to Wilder, both were struck by how far they and their home state had come.

"Arthur spoke of this state, how in 1619, in Jamestown, some 20 Africans on a ship came ashore to slavery," Wilder said. "Arthur said, 'Was-n't it amazing? He had started from here and won Wimbledon.' Then, I said, 'Well, I started here, too.' "

Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor and U.S. representative to the United Nations, also was struck by the site of Ashe, lying in state, in the Executive Mansion of the one-time cradle of the Confederacy.

"I have a strange mixture of emotions," he said. "Seeing how Arthur's career started on public courts, and seeing how far he has come, and we have all come," he said. "I think Arthur Ashe came up in a really impossible situation. We don't have people who understand the loneliness he faced. He steeled himself for battles."

Young said he met with Ashe 10 days ago, and "Arthur never complained. He said he'd beat this thing."

And now, here it was, a few weeks later, and a city mourned its loss.

"I see this as a celebration of one of the great lives of our time," Young said. "It's not a time to be sad. It's a time for joy."

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