How an Arthur Ashe statue ended up in Richmond's Confederate memorial

by: Steve Tignor | August 22, 2017

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Arthur Ashe is memorialized in Richmond, Virginia with a bronze statue, showing the African-American tennis player and humanitarian surrounded by children—holding a set of books in one hand and a racquet in the other. (AP)

“Richmond Could Be Next Monument Battleground,” an NBC News report asserted on Sunday. The capital of Virginia, and the former capital of the Confederacy, is a target-rich environment when it comes to statues of southern Civil War figures. At the city’s heart is Monument Avenue, which features the towering likenesses of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis and Matthew Fontaine Maury. Last week, Richmond’s African-American mayor, Levar Stoney, reversed his earlier position in light of the clashes in Charlottesville and came out in favor of taking them down.

“I wish they had never been built,” Stoney said. “These monuments should be part of our dark past and not of our bright future.”

There is one statue on Monument Avenue, though, that’s unlike all the others, and which will almost certainly survive any purge: It’s a bronze sculpture of Arthur Ashe, which was erected, after much discussion, rancor and controversy, in 1996, three years after his death from AIDS. It features Ashe, a Richmond native, surrounded by children and holding a set of books in one hand and a racquet in the other. It’s smaller than the other monuments and a little out of the way, but for 21 years the legendary black tennis player has taken his place in the city’s historical Confederate parade.

How did Ashe, a child of Jim Crow and the segregated south, end up there? The project was the brainchild of the sculptor Paul di Pasquale.

“I met [Ashe] at a tennis clinic for kids in Richmond, and that was when I started thinking,” di Pasquale told the city’s CBS 6 News last year. “This is an internationally loved man. He is a product of Virginia education, and Richmond schools, and a hero who has used his success as an athlete and a bully pulpit for social concerns.”

Di Pasquale contacted Ashe, who gave him his blessing, though he knew at the time that he was dying. Ashe told the artist to include children and books, and to sculpt him in the emaciated form that he was in then—he weighed just 128 pounds by that point. But just as work had begun, Ashe passed away.

When di Pasquale got home from the funeral, which was attended by 6,000 people in Richmond, he found a package addressed to him that included photos and a note from Ashe, saying, “Hey, Paul, I wanted you to have these. Let’s talk soon.” Ashe’s wife, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, said that writing the note had been the last thing he did. The project, in the minds of di Pasquale and Moutoussamy-Ashe, had to continue.

The city of Richmond backed the idea. But no one was prepared for the reaction of Virginia’s governor, Douglas Wilder, a friend of Ashe’s, when he saw a plaster version of the work. Wilder stood and said, “This statue needs to go on Monument Avenue.”

“I thought that was a bad idea,” di Pasquale said, “because I thought we would lose.”

Di Pasquale was ultimately mistaken, but he was right to be apprehensive about the process ahead. As the New York Times reported, “The issue [of locating the statue] has now touched off one of Virginia’s most raucous debates on race since the State Legislature tried four decades ago to defy the Supreme Court decision holding school segregation unconstitutional.”

During a City Council meeting, the president of a local Heritage Preservation Association (which promoted Confederate flag displays) called Monument Avenue “hallowed ground” and maintained that placing the Ashe statue somewhere else “would pay the proper tribute to a great athlete without violating the historic sensibilities of Richmond’s Confederate-American population.”

At the same time, some black residents didn’t think a monument to slave-holders was an appropriate place for Ashe, while an arts group questioned the quality of the statue and called for a new one to be designed. Richmond’s City Hall received 400 phone calls on the issue, 90 percent of which were opposed. When the mayor at the time proposed razing two buildings to make room for a park to hold the statue, Wilder called the idea “moronic.”

Imagining Ashe’s reaction to the ordeal, Wilder told the Times, “I think Arthur would say, ‘Let me rest in peace.’”

After months of discussion, though, the City Council voted without dissent to install the statue in Monument Park, and it was unveiled there on what would have been Ashe’s 53rd birthday.

Whatever else might be said, Ashe is a hero for Richmond to celebrate. He took what he learned growing up in the city and used that experience to try to make the world a better place. Denied access to Byrd Park, the premier, all-white recreational facility, he learned to play tennis in the city’s park for blacks, Brook Field. The memory of segregation—of separate but unequal—would lead him to become a lifelong integrationist, both in his words and deeds. Ashe rejected all separatist arguments, including those of the Nation of Islam and other radical activists. He remained a moderate, dedicated to the philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ashe believed in integration, because he had seen his country change, and because he had helped his own sport to change.

At 18, in 1961, Ashe fulfilled the longtime dream of his coach, Dr. Robert Walter Johnson, by becoming the first black player to win the previously all-white National Interscholastic tournament in Charlottesville, Virginia. Two years later, he became the first black player selected for the U.S. Davis Cup team. In 1968, he became the first black man to win the U.S. Open. But Ashe didn’t stop at the U.S. border: In 1973, during apartheid, he traveled to Johannesburg to become the first black player to compete in the South Africa Open.

Pulling down Confederate memorials in Richmond might create a local backlash that would dwarf the debate over the Ashe sculpture. But whether those statues go or not, it’s clear that the U.S. would be well served with more monuments to African-Americans—and humans—like Arthur Ashe.


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