Richmond OKs Ashe memorial site

July 18, 1995|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,Sun Staff Writer

RICHMOND, Va. -- Arthur Ashe never shied away from a fight -- not on the courts of Wimbledon, not with apartheid in South Africa, not with racism in America. And now, two years after his death from AIDS-related pneumonia, Mr. Ashe is the subject of another struggle here in his hometown.

The issue this time is where to put a memorial to Mr. Ashe: On Monument Avenue, where Confederate heroes such as Robert E. Lee and Jeb Stuart stand? Or in some other part of town, where a statue of a contemporary, black American hero would not clash with tributes to men who defended the right to keep slaves?

After a more than seven-hour session, the city council voted early today to approve the Monument Avenue site for the Arthur Ashe memorial.

Calling the public hearing a revival and healing for the city, Mayor Leonidas B. Young said supporting the placement of the statue on Monument Avenue was "the one right thing to do."

Before the hearing, Mr. Young had supported another site for the statue.

Two councilmen said the hearing changed their minds about where the monument should be placed. "Quite frankly, I thought Arthur Ashe was too good for Monument Avenue," said Councilman Larry E. Chavis.

Councilman Anthony D. Jones said hearing the wishes of the family swayed him.

Arthur Ashe's brother, Johnnie Ashe, said: "This is the true sense of what democracy is all about. The people had a chance to speak and the elected leaders took the advice of the people for once in their lives."

In an apparent compromise, the council also voted to establish a downtown park and hall of fame honoring African-American athletes.

The pros and cons are complex, and Virginians of different races can be found on both sides of the argument. Some blacks and some whites said Mr. Ashe deserves a memorial on Richmond's grandest boulevard.

But others, for differing reasons, are offended by the notion of an Ashe statue standing near leaders of the Confederacy. Some whites want the heroes of the Old South to stand alone. Some blacks don't want Mr. Ashe's monument near Confederate soldiers.

All those arguments were voiced last night at a hearing in the city that Mr. Ashe left as a teen-ager because racism barred him from competing in junior-level tennis tournaments.

Members of Mr. Ashe's family were the first to speak to the crowded city council chambers, packed with more than 150 residents and media.

"If Arthur were alive, he would be thoroughly disgusted that this was happening," said Mr. Ashe's brother, Johnnie Ashe. He reiterated that the family supports the Monument Avenue site.

Robert W. Waitt, who served on the city's civil war centennial commission, agreed about the location.

"We have Monument Avenue, not Civil War Monument Avenue," he said. "If we do not choose Monument Avenue, we will be saying to the world that Arthur Ashe was not good enough to be on that street."

But Henry C. Garrard Sr., another Richmond resident, said Mr. Ashe's accomplishments don't warrant the location.

"Arthur chiefly was a sports hero of the greatest magnitude one can imagine," he said. "I can not see placing the statue on Monument Avenue."

Monument Avenue begins near the center of the city with a monument to James Ewell Brown 'Jeb' Stuart, a general in the Confederate Army. One block west stands the monument to Robert E. Lee that was the seed for the development of the grand residential thoroughfare when it was still just a field in 1890.

The proposed site for Arthur Ashe's monument sits slightly more than a mile northwest of the Lee monument, where tall trees still keep the grassy median shady much of the day. A few blocks further northwest, the manicured lawns stop and the avenue turns into just another divided highway connecting the suburbs to the city.

Richmond's planning commission in June approved the site at the intersection of Roseneath Road and Monument Avenue. Officials on the committee that helped develop the monument idea wanted to break ground on the site on the anniversary of Mr. Ashe's birthday July 10, but the mayor and city council decided to hold the public hearing.

Former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder has been an outspoken proponent of the site on Monument.

"If Arthur Ashe were white, do you think there would be any furor?" he said yesterday morning, before conducting his daily radio program from the proposed site.

Some Richmond residents question the appropriateness of a statue of a casually-dressed Mr. Ashe surrounded by children for the avenue, where the existing monuments share a traditional formality.

"That statue to me is going to look gangly and out of place on

this part of Monument Avenue," said Pat Hudgins in the sun room of his Mediterranean-style house. "The design of the statue just does not fit this neighborhood."

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