Storm of opposition postpones groundbreaking for Ashe memorial in Va.

July 09, 1995|By New York Times News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- City officials seriously consider ousting a statue of Christopher Columbus from a Richmond park. A white man wearing Civil War medals lectures the black-majority City Council on the sensibilities of the "Confederate-American population."

All this heat is being shed on a matter that less than two weeks ago was considered settled: A statue of the black tennis star Arthur Ashe, the city's best-known native son, was to join those of five pre-eminent Confederates on Richmond's Monument Avenue, a boulevard that the National Park Service has called "the South's grandest commemorative precinct dedicated to the heroes of the Lost Cause."

Last month the city's Planning Commission unanimously approved the placement of the statue.

A groundbreaking was set for tomorrow, which would have been the 52nd birthday of Mr. Ashe, who died of AIDS in 1993, a result of a blood transfusion he had received in heart surgery.

Then came a storm of opposition in which blacks, who thought the Ashe statue deserved a more appropriate location, seemed no less riled than whites, who believed that the avenue's historic integrity was being imperiled.

City Hall fielded more than 400 telephone calls over the issue in five days, 90 percent of them opposing the designated location of the statue.

As a result, the City Council decided June 26 to postpone the groundbreaking and hold a hearing, set for July 17, to consider other locations for an Ashe memorial.

Among those who addressed the council at the June 26 meeting was R. Wayne Byrd, president of the Danville, Va., chapter of the Heritage Preservation Association, a group that promotes display of the Confederate flag. He called Monument Avenue "hallowed ground" and said that placing the Ashe statue elsewhere "would pay the proper tribute to a great athlete without violating the historic sensibilities of Richmond's Confederate-American population."

In a heated reply, Henry W. Richardson, one of five blacks on the nine-member council, told Mr. Byrd that Mr. Ashe had earned a place on Monument Avenue, "whether we put him there or not."

An array of locations has emerged as alternatives. Mayor Leonidas B. Young II has suggested an Arthur Ashe Park in the business district a mile from Monument Avenue.

Other officials want to swap a statue of Columbus for one of Mr. Ashe in Byrd Park, where segregation kept Mr. Ashe from playing tennis as a youth.

Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder said last week that the furor would have so angered and embarrassed Mr. Ashe, a longtime friend, that he would not have wanted a statue at all. "He did not lead a life of in-your-face. I think Arthur would say, 'Let me rest in peace.' "

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