"An Avenue For All People": How Arthur Ashe Came to Monument Avenue
“Richmond is known as a city of monuments. And the marquee street for monuments is Monument Avenue,” declared Richmond sportswriter Paul Woody in a 1995 column. “But the unfortunate impression left on some by the statues is that the street is reserved for Confederate leaders and Matthew Fontaine Maury. This impression should be changed. What better way to bring about change than by having a statue of [Arthur] Ashe on the city’s grandest boulevard?”
No one disputed that Arthur Ashe, the African-American tennis champion, humanitarian, and Richmond native son who had died recently from AIDS contracted during a blood transfusion, deserved a statue. Whether a street known internationally for its statues of Confederate heroes was the right place for Ashe or the only place for Ashe was the subject of a debate that focused international attention on Richmond.
As Richmonders in 2017 debate the future of Monument Avenue’s Confederate statues, it is useful to recall how 21 years ago – and 19 years after African Americans achieved majority control of the city government – Richmond integrated its most famous street.
Unlike the organizational efforts responsible for the five previous Monument Avenue statues, the Ashe statue originated almost by accident. After meeting Ashe in 1992 and learning of Ashe’s dream of building an African-American Sports Hall of Fame in Richmond, sculptor Paul DiPasquale proposed a statue of Ashe to be located at the Hall of Fame. Ashe approved DiPasquale’s idea and stipulated a short list of features he wanted the statue to incorporate. Shortly before sculptor and subject were to meet, Ashe died on February 6, 1993.
The Sports Hall of Fame proposal went moribund after the death of its inspiration, but the statue lived on. It came to public attention in late 1994 when Virginia Heroes, a mentoring organization founded in 1990, announced a $400,000 fundraising campaign. Richmond City Council pledged $100,000 toward the project.
Former Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder (the nation’s first elected African-American governor) suggested that the statue should be erected on Monument Avenue. For the next 18 months, Richmonders and interested outsiders engaged in a wide-ranging discussion of the past, present, and future meaning of Monument Avenue.
As Paul Woody had written, placing the Ashe statue on Monument Avenue made a powerful statement about a new, more inclusive, Richmond. That symbolic gesture met with expected and unexpected opposition during a debate that confounded the customary racial battle lines.
Predictably, Confederate heritage groups and individuals who considered Monument Avenue “hallowed ground,” protested the inappropriateness of adding Ashe’s statue. The reason, ostensibly, was not the color of Ashe’s skin, but the nature of his accomplishments. A letter to a Richmond weekly paper complained that putting Ashe on Monument Avenue would be “a palpable breach of commemorative protocol. It violates categorical distinction of motif. Ashe was not a military hero, and General Lee and his Confederates were not playing competitive or diversionary sports.”
“In reality,” the letter went on, addressing the proverbial elephant in the room, “the Ashe statue is the symbol of a racially factional commemorative turf invasion, conveniently using a sports arriviste for a pretext.”
The undeniable intention to integrate Monument Avenue also drew dissent from Richmond’s (African-American) mayor and the outspoken editor/publisher of the African-American weekly Richmond Free Press. “Arthur Ashe, a true hero whose shining performance on and off the tennis court gave him world fame, deserves far more than Monument Avenue,” wrote Raymond Boone in June 1995. “Monument Avenue, in all its natural and architectural beauty, celebrates the worst in our history – traitors who fought against human freedom and a mentality still with us today, that screams ‘never’ to justice for black people.”
Boone and Mayor Leonidas Young lobbied to build the statue downtown. Others embraced the ironic symbolism of locating it near the public tennis courts that segregation laws had prevented young Ashe from using.
As politicians, pundits, and the public weighed in, the city’s architectural and planning boards approved the Monument Avenue location. On the eve of a planned groundbreaking, City Council put on the brakes, acknowledging that there had been no opportunity for public input. Council set a date for a public hearing; public officials and media from around the world prepared for another bitterly divisive showdown over race and the Confederate legacy for which Richmond had become famous.
Instead, the hearing turned out to be what Mayor Young pronounced the city’s “finest hour” and resulted in early morning unanimous Council vote to erect the statue on Monument Avenue. The hearing impressed journalist Tony Horwitz, who expected to witness an “angry meeting.” “What I witnessed instead,” he wrote later in Confederates in the Attic, “was a thoughtful discourse on public art, the potency of historic symbols, racial healing, and affirmative action – albeit for a deceased black male who had fled Richmond at eighteen to escape what he later called ‘its segregation, its conservatism, its parochial thinking.’”
Within a few days of that cathartic Council vote, voices in Richmond’s art community suggested that the design of the Ashe statue needed public input and the kind of formal design competition that had characterized the earlier Monument Avenue statues. Paul DiPasquale’s design based on his subject’s own requirements featured a casually-dressed Ashe holding a tennis racket in his wrong (left) hand and books in the other looking down on the torsos, heads, and uplifted arms of racially diverse children. Standing on a trophy-like 16-foot base, the relatively diminutive statue (12 feet to the top of the books) struck many of its supporters as “a third-rate monument masquerading as an honor to a first-rate man.”
As the arts community lobbied for a new design, Ashe’s widow, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, threw the whole project into doubt with an op-ed column published on New Year’s Day, 1996. “No, I am not in agreement with the decision to place the ‘Arthur Ashe monument’ on Monument Avenue,” she explained. “My reasons are not politically driven; nor are they artistically or racially motivated. I have always felt that in all the controversy, the spirit that Arthur gave to Richmond has been overlooked. I am afraid that a statue of Arthur Ashe on Monument Avenue honors Richmond, Virginia, more than it does its son, his legacy, and his life’s work.” She urged, instead, that the city return to her husband’s original idea: an African-American Sports Hall of Fame.
For several months, Richmond entertained the idea of a two-statue approach: locate the DiPasquale statue on Monument Avenue until the city could raise the funds for the Hall of Fame, then relocate the statue there and erect in its place on Monument Avenue a new Ashe statue to be commissioned after a proper design competition. By late March 1996, an impatient City Council nixed this complex proposal and reaffirmed its commitment to DiPasquali’s statue on Monument Avenue.
The remaining opposition came from a small group of Confederate heritage activists who tried unsuccessfully to convince the courts that the city must respect for all time Monument Avenue’s original Confederate character. “Everybody knows that this Avenue was constructed as a Confederate memorial through its entire length,” insisted Ed Willis six weeks before the scheduled monument unveiling.
On July 10, 1996 (what would have been Ashe’s 53rd birthday), Willis’s group positioned Confederate battle flags on the four corners of Monument Ave. and Roseneath Rd., where 2,000 people gathered for the unveiling ceremony. Other protesters – whom one man dismissed as “the racial equivalent of streakers” – carried flags and signs reading: “STATUE LOCATION IS A HATE CRIME / HERITAGE DESECRATION IS NOT A CIVIL RIGHT / CULTURAL BIGOTS DESTROY SOUTHERN HERITAGE”
At the unveiling and in subsequent months, the Richmond community congratulated itself for having taken a bold step into a more inclusive future. The statue drew a non-stop traffic of onlookers, many of them African Americans. “People just keep coming, like it’s a shrine,” one resident told a reporter. “There’s always somebody here.”
As the statue that integrated Monument Avenue and which stands in symbolic counterpoint to the Confederate statues, Ashe became a rallying point for outsiders hoping to exploit white southern resentment. Several months after the unveiling, a Ku Klux Klan group based in northwest Virginia left provocative leaflets (filled with comic misspellings as well as racial epithets) at houses near the statue. In 1999, former Klan leader turned Louisiana politician David Duke came to Richmond on the occasion of another public controversy concerning race and Confederate heritage. Staging a press conference at the Ashe statue, Duke declared “’We have to put up with Arthur Ashe, a sports star, on an avenue of heroes of the Confederacy,’ he said. ‘But they can’t put up with a mural of Robert E. Lee. I can’t understand that.’”
Although criticism of DiPasquale’s design persisted (a national magazine, Mental Floss, in 2014 designated it one of “10 Unintentionally Horrifying Statues of Famous People”), the statue soon became a familiar and accepted part of the landscape. Located three long blocks west of the previously westernmost statue (Maury), it was included in the Monument Avenue National Historic Landmark District designated in 1997.
At no time was the symbolic power of Monument Avenue more evident than in the debate over the Ashe statue. There may have been other locations more meaningful for honoring Arthur Ashe, but, in late 20th-century Richmond, only Monument Avenue could make statements about the importance of the man and about the fundamental changes that were occurring in the once-hidebound former “Capital of the Confederacy.” As former governor Wilder declared at the July 10, 1996 unveiling ceremony, “Monument Avenue is now an avenue for all people.”
For further reading:
Matthew Mace Barbee, Race and Masculinity in Southern Memory: History of Richmond, Virginia’s Monument Avenue, 1948-1996. Lexington Books, 2013.
Brian Black and Bryn Varley, “Contesting the Sacred: Preservation and Meaning on Richmond’s Monument Avenue” in Monuments to the Lost Cause: Women, Art, and the Landscapes of Southern Memory, edited by Cynthia Mills and Pamela H. Simpson. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, pp. 234-250.
National Register nomination (.pdf)