Plans for Arthur Ashe statue bring fighting words to Richmond

July 11, 1995|By Steve Goldstein | Steve Goldstein,Knight-Ridder News Service

They fought the Civil War here in Richmond, Va.

In some ways, they are fighting it still.

At the crux of a contemporary controversy is a statue and a street.

The statue commemorates the life of tennis champion and activist Arthur R. Ashe Jr., a native Richmonder. The street is Monument Avenue, a leafy boulevard of Confederate dreams.

Ashe, who died two years ago of AIDS-related pneumonia, would have been 52 years old yesterday, a date chosen to break ground on Monument Avenue for the installation of his statue.

Instead, Richmond's City Council postponed the ceremony and will convene Monday to hear supporters and opponents of the plan to place Ashe's statue adjacent to a row of five bronzed, white heroes of the Old South.

In a debate where symbols are the substance, the legacy of the War Between the States has made uneasy allies of white traditionalists and black leaders who deplore the Monument Avenue site.

It has stirred passions among the majority black population in this capital of 200,000, where "integrating" the heroes of Monument is a desired, if tricky, goal.

"I would hope that the political and community leaders would not use the Ashe statue for political pingpong," said Robin E. Reed, director of the Museum of the Confederacy here, who opposes the Monument Avenue site.

But the volleying is well under way.

Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the most prominent advocate of the Monument Avenue site, has criticized as "moronic" a proposal by the mayor and others to create a downtown park for the statue.

"Monument Avenue and Richmond were not good enough for Arthur Ashe when he had to leave them," Mr. Wilder told the Richmond-Times Dispatch. "There are some who are saying it is not good enough for him, even in his death."

The mayor, Leonidas B. Young II, who is black, said that while he wanted to break the white monopoly on Monument, Ashe was not the person for the place.

"I don't think we need to trivialize Arthur Ashe to equalize Monument Avenue," Mr. Young said in a interview.

"Why put a winner on an avenue of losers?" said Raymond H. Boone, publisher of the Richmond Free Press.

Ashe had his own misgivings about the one-time capital of the Confederate States of America. A tennis champion noted for his struggle against racial apartheid, Ashe stayed away from segregated Richmond after he left to attend the University of California at Los Angeles.

The manicured, whites-only tennis courts were as out of reach as the moon to the young Ashe, who was forced to learn the game in a segregated park tended by his father.

Nor would Ashe have been welcomed to stroll in the moneyed environs of Monument Avenue, a broad thoroughfare split by a grassy median and lined with majestic trees and splendid old homes.

Towering over five intersections in 10 blocks are bronzes of Confederate stalwarts J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and scientist Adm. Matthew F. Maury.

Pushed by Mr. Wilder, a friend and the state's first black governor, Ashe later reconciled with a city that hurt him. He is buried here, and an athletic center he founded bears his name.

In 1992, after Ashe disclosed that he had contracted the HIV virus through a blood transfusion, local sculptor Paul DiPasquale approached the former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion with a proposal to do his statue.

Ashe eventually agreed, even providing counsel on the design of the statue a few weeks before his death in February 1993.

Backed by Virginia Heroes Inc., a nonprofit group founded by Ashe and Mr. Wilder to mentor Richmond sixth-graders, Mr. DiPasquale proceeded with the $400,000 project.

The 12-foot statue depicts Ashe with arms upraised, his serving hand holding three books and a racket in his left hand. A grouping of four children completes the monument, which is to be cast in bronze.

A site selection committee narrowed the list to four locations, then settled on Monument Avenue. That's when the furor began.

Now the battle over Monument Avenue is joined, and joined, too, are those who revere and resent the bitter memory of the Civil War.

R. Wayne Byrd of the Heritage Preservation Association in Danville, Va., said Ashe's presence would impugn the "theme" of Monument Avenue.

"Ashe does not compare with the men on Monument," said Mr. Byrd. "He won Wimbledon."

Mr. Boone, the publisher, also wants Ashe elsewhere.

"We need to free ourselves from the mind-set of white people who say this is the greatness of Richmond," said Mr. Boone, who backs the park idea. "It's a row of lost-cause generals."

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