Richmond this week honored tennis great, humanitarian and Richmond native Arthur Ashe by renaming what was formerly known as The Boulevard after him.
This was a hard road to glory, dating back to shortly after Ashe’s death in 1993, when the idea of renaming the Boulevard in his name was floated for the first of three attempts by the Richmond City Council.
Ashe nephew David Harris Jr. and Councilwoman Kim Gray ultimately pushed Ashe Boulevard through. To finally honor him in the fashion he deserves represents more of a triumph for Richmond—over itself and its demons—than for Ashe, whose legacy hardly requires burnishing.
“I think that the renaming shows that even though it took a long time, these things can be done,” said historian Ed Ayers, president emeritus of the University of Richmond.
“People understand that memorialization matters; that the names that we give things have consequences.”
Who should know this better than the former capital of the Confederacy, whose abundance of Lost Cause iconography gives us the appearance of being frozen in time?
The rebranding of this historic boulevard reflects a transformation that goes beyond street signs.
Developed into an ideological cousin of Monument Avenue, this boulevard’s addresses included the United Daughters of the Confederacy Memorial Building and the Confederate Memorial Institute, or Battle Abbey, later home to the Virginia Historical Society.
Stonewall Jackson’s monument sat a few blocks away.
Today, the Historical Society has been renamed the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, once as inviting as a fortress, has expanded its building, bolstered its African American collections and broadened its appeal. A black man, Monroe Harris, presides over its board of trustees, with a distinct vantage point on this historic occasion.
“I think that it sends a tremendous statement about what progress means, in that we have a street that obviously celebrates a cause that is the antithesis to progress for black people in this country,” Harris said, referring to Monument Avenue.
“And now, we are naming the street that intersects with it for a man who, a lot of his life, was trying to right the injustices of people who were being oppressed.”
The irony surrounding Arthur Ashe Boulevard wasn’t lost on Harvey Graves of Chesterfield County.
“It’s just amazing to me that they’re including Byrd Park as part of his legacy when they wouldn’t let him play here,” he said Wednesday evening, after hitting balls with Priscilla Woody and Tanisha Moseley on the Byrd Park courts.
He called the renaming of the street “huge” and “inclusive. So that would be, I guess, some restitution for the past.”
Author Raymond Arsenault plunged into that past in his biography of the tennis great, “Arthur Ashe: A Life.”
“I think he clearly understood the importance of symbolism,” Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida, said during a phone interview Thursday. “And I think to a large extent, he made peace with Richmond.”
He likened Ashe’s generous spirit to that of U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the civil rights icon and keynote speaker at the Ashe Boulevard dedication.
“I think he would really see the positive aspects of this—the move in Richmond from the Confederate heritage and all that to also celebrating its civil rights heritage, which I think this is a big part of. He’s really the most famous person to come out of Richmond, so it’s very fitting.”
For so long, Richmond’s streetscape, no doubt by design, imposed psychological limits on its black residents to match the codified limits of Jim Crow. Our place in this city was defined by who was celebrated in public spaces of honor—and, more tellingly, who was not.
Today, when we drive along Arthur Ashe Boulevard, we can contemplate with wonder Ashe’s achievements in the face of tremendous adversity.
“It has the consequences of elevating us and who we can be,” Ayers said.
The boulevard has the power not merely to alter our perceptions, but those of outsiders.
“We’ve been working so very hard to bring the new Civil War museum into fruition. We’ve borne the burden of being the former capital of the Confederacy for a long time,” Ayers said. Acknowledging our most famous native son of modern times “will give people confidence that Richmond is attuned to the more recent past as well as the distant past.”
Let’s be clear: Richmond can never repay the debt it owes to Ashe. But this is a down payment.
“You can’t ever atone for all the sins of the past,” Harris said, “but it’s moving in the right direction.”
This boulevard of dreams is less a final destination than an avenue toward a more equitable city.
Or as Arsenault said, “It paves the way for better days ahead.”