Arthur Ashe, Still Serving Aces

July 20, 1995

Putting a statue of the late tennis champion Arthur Ashe among the statuary of Confederate heroes memorialized in Richmond, Va., is the symbolic equivalent of a smash serve to the psyche of the Old South. Take that!

Oh, there are those who claim putting Mr. Ashe among the stony likenesses of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jeb Stuart should cause no great discomfort to those who still worship the "Lost Cause." Don't believe them for a minute. The Ashe statue, placed on Monument Avenue, is meant to be an irritant. But that could be a good thing.

To get the right perspective you have to go back in time, not as far back as the Civil War, but around 1900, when the residential subdivision along Monument Avenue was being born. The statue of Lee came before most of the houses. It was placed in a muddy field, which upset a lot former rebels. Also upset were Richmond's black citizens, who criticized the spending of public funds to honor former Confederates. But their complaints didn't mean a thing. Huge mansions were built in the neighborhood, followed by the other statues.

The high-priced homes and accompanying artwork cast in tribute to men who had fought to keep the South a separate nation of slaveholders sent a strong message over the years to black Virginians: "This neighborhood was not meant for you." What better way to send a counter-message that times have changed dramatically than to place a statue of a modern hero -- an African American who waged peace, not war -- among all those white men who made their mark on the battlefield? It may not be the most appropriate place for an Ashe statue, but it is a fitting comment on the life he led and what Richmond and America should become.

Arthur Ashe spent most of his 49 years in places people didn't expect or want him. He excelled at a sport that had been the domain of whites. He became the first African American man to win the U.S. Open and followed that by winning a singles title at Wimbledon. He used the resulting attention to speak out against racism in his own country and in South Africa. Forced by the press to reveal he had AIDS (from a blood transfusion), Mr. Ashe became a leader in the effort to educate people about that disease.

Segregation prompted Mr. Ashe to move from Richmond when he was a teen-ager. As an adult, he forgave the city for the way he was treated there as a child. Mr. Ashe often came back to visit. Whenever he did he was a visible reminder of what people can accomplish when they refuse to be bound by the limits of history. His statue on Monument Avenue will serve the same purpose.

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