Richmond may honor Ashe with Confederates

June 18, 1995|By New York Times News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The city of Richmond, which banned the young Arthur Ashe from lighted tennis courts because he was black, is now considering enshrining him alongside the heroes of the Confederacy.

The Richmond Planning Commission will debate a proposal tomorrow to place a statue of the late Mr. Ashe, tennis star and civil rights champion, on Monument Avenue, a boulevard lined with granite giants of the Confederacy.

The proposed site has angered both whites and blacks. Some whites say they want Monument Avenue to remain a memorial to rebel valor. Black opponents of the site say they are dismayed by the idea of erecting a statue of Mr. Ashe in a neighborhood where he would not have walked.

Mr. Ashe left the segregated city in disgust in 1961, while he was in high school. His race precluded participation in city tennis tournaments, and officials rebuffed a friend's plea that Mr. Ashe be allowed to join the city's white players during the winter on the courts in the National Guard armory.

Thomas N. Chewning, a white Richmond tennis champion who was a contemporary of Mr. Ashe's, did not meet him until they played in an integrated tennis tournament in West Virginia. "Arthur wound up No. 1 in the world and unranked in the city," said Mr. Chewning, who is the co-chairman of the committee that was formed three years ago to raise money for the statue.

Shortly before his death in 1993, at 49, Mr. Ashe -- former Wimbledon and U.S. Open singles champion -- approved a design for the statue. Mr. Chewning's committee proposed the Monument Avenue site.

Mr. Ashe's stepmother, Lorene K. Ashe, of Gum Spring, Va., said family members had mixed feelings about placing the statue on Monument Avenue. "Wherever the children can see it, that's what Arthur would want," Mrs. Ashe said. "I'm going along. I believe in peace. I don't believe Arthur would want any disturbance over this monument, knowing him."

On Monument Avenue, sweeping from downtown to the University of Richmond five miles away, Mr. Ashe would be nestled in the city's symbolic heart. Two cannons mark the earthen defense lines built to repel Union troops when Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy.

The 24-foot memorial to Mr. Ashe would join a 61-foot statue of Robert E. Lee astride his horse Traveller. At other plazas, Stonewall Jackson and J. E. B. Stuart rein in their chargers. Jefferson Davis is saluted as the president of "the Confederate States of America" and a "defender of the rights of states."

Gene Price, who went to junior high school with Mr. Ashe, wants the statue in the Brookfield area, where the site of Mr. Ashe's childhood home is covered by a Postal Service parking lot. "They should make a park here, so poor kids coming up could see where he came from," said Mr. Price, who owns an auto repair shop within sight of the former playground.

The most prominent supporter of the Monument Avenue site for the statue is L. Douglas Wilder, the former Virginia governor who opened the executive mansion for the tennis player's body to lie in state. Mr. Wilder said of the mounted Confederates: "These are heroes from an era which would deny the aspirations of an Arthur Ashe. He would stand with them, saying, 'I, too, speak for Virginia.' "

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