Home town gives Ashe his due recognition

July 12, 1996|By Mike Littwin

THERE ARE heroes and then there are heroes. They put up a statue of Arthur Ashe the other day in his hometown of Richmond, Va., on what they call the boulevard of heroes.

The actual name of the street is Monument Avenue, and it's got monuments like Paris has monuments. Big heroes on big horses on a big street with big trees.

The setting is majestic. But there's majesty and then there's majesty.

The heroes of Monument Avenue are of the Civil War variety. And maybe Robert E. Lee is a hero. And maybe Stonewall Jackson is a hero. And maybe J. E. B. Stuart is a hero. They were military heroes, although I'm not always sure what that means. They were generals. They fought for the South and the Southern way of life, which included slavery. Maybe they were brave; maybe they were brilliant. I don't know if that makes them heroes.

In death, perhaps even more than in life, they became symbols of an era. The statues were erected between 1890 and 1929, as a reminder that Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy and as a reminder of who was still in charge, as if anyone who lived in the time of Jim Crow needed any more reminding.

Although my family was from New York, I grew up in Virginia, went to school in Virginia and they even tried to make of me a Virginia gentleman. As you might already have guessed, it didn't take.

In elementary school, in the early '60s, we would occasionally play Civil War on the school blacktop. Most of the kids fought over which Southern general they would be. Meanwhile, I was the North. You don't have to wonder which side won those wars.

As with every family, there are certain moments that become legend. With ours, there was the dinner at which my little sister, then in the third grade, told what she had learned in school that day. The slaves, she said, didn't have it so bad, her teacher had told her. They had a roof over their head. They got three meals a day. What was so horrible?

We laughed, and then my parents complained to the principal. He probably laughed, too, although possibly not at the teacher.

This is not ancient history. It's 30 years.

In 1961, Ashe, then 18 years old, left Richmond. He wrote later that he intended never to come back. His story is well known. As a boy, he was not allowed to play on his hometown's segregated tennis courts. He left for UCLA and went on to win the U.S. Open and Wimbledon and almost everything else that a tennis player could win.

And that doesn't make him a hero. It makes him a good tennis player.

But Ashe was a hero.

Ashe was a teacher. He was an activist. He fought against apartheid. He fought for the education of small children.

He lived his life as symbol, and he took that role seriously. When Charles Barkley says athletes are not role models, he means that in the right way. He means that parents should be role models, and kids should want to be doctors, not basketball players.

But Ashe understood something deeper than that. He wasn't a symbol only because of what he was able to accomplish, but because of who he was.

He was a fine man. He was a good man.

And when he was stricken with AIDS, brought on by a blood transfusion, he took up the call for AIDS education.

Before he died, he was asked if he'd like a statue of himself. He said he wouldn't mind. And so Ashe, on what would have been his 53rd birthday, came home to much ceremony and some protesting from those who didn't think he belonged there.

The statue itself is not majestic, in the heroic style. It's 12 feet tall -- Jackson, on horseback, stands 60 feet -- and shows Ashe in a sweatsuit, holding books aloft in one hand and a tennis racket in the other. At the base of the statue are four children. The statue says not to be in awe of Ashe but to learn from his example.

It's a different Richmond to which Ashe returns. It's a majority black city now. The mayor is black. The police chief is black. The fire chief is black. Among those who protested the placement of Ashe's statue on Monument Avenue were those who thought it demeaned Ashe to be in such company.

Others, though, understood the symbolism.

The sculptor, a Richmond native, said simply of the street, "Isn't it for monuments? Isn't it for heroes?"

And former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder, the first black governor since Reconstruction, was slightly more eloquent.

"We crossed the Rubicon," he said.

It's a small thing. And a grand thing.

Pub Date: 7/12/96

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