Arthur Ashe - A Monumental Man?

On February 6, 1993 Richmond, Virginia said a final farewell to its most famous prodigal son, Arthur Ashe, as the AIDS virus claimed another victim. The first black man ever to win Wimbledon, Ashe brought recognition and honor to his hometown and his nation. But the country's pride in Arthur Ashe stemmed from more than just his successful tennis career. In addition to his athletic achievements, Ashe committed himself to AIDS awareness and education, spoke out against apartheid in South Africa and stood firmly in opposition of racism in America--something he experienced firsthand. It is not surprising therefore that the residents of Richmond would want to commemorate the noble life and benevolent work of one of their own.

In June of 1995 ground was broken on Monument Avenue for the placement of the Arthur Ashe statue, a site proposed and supported by Richmond's Planning Commission. Yet just two weeks after the ground-breaking ceremony, the issue concerning the statue's placement erupted in controversy. Some Richmond residents voiced their belief that Ashe was too good to be commemorated on the same street with men who supported the institution of slavery, while others thought that the statue was "disgraceful and defiled the memory of the mounted, weapon-bearing, medal-massed soldiers" positioned along the avenue.1 Other residents accepted the site as a fitting location for Ashe's immortalization, viewing this placement as a "symbol of racial healing."2 After a seven hour meeting attended by members of Ashe's family as well as local residents dressed in traditional African garb and others donning Confederate clothing, Richmond's City Council unanimously voted in favor of those residents endorsing the statue's placement on Monument Avenue. But in January of 1996 the decision was once again questioned as Ms. Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe issued a public statement declaring that she and her late husband oppose placing the statue on "the Avenue of Confederate Heroes."3 Mrs. Ashe further asserted that her husband wanted the statue placed in front of an African American Sports Hall of Fame to be built in Richmond. Displeased with this decision, city council member Viola Baskerville rebuked, "to say that a monument of this significance could be relegated to a sports hall of fame is to put Arthur Ashe back in the milieu he transcended." 4

In a city initially so eager to celebrate the undisputed greatness of a hometown hero, especially one as world renown as Arthur Ashe, the controversy surrounding the statue's placement on Monument Avenue illustrates the power that this symbolic heart of the city maintains in evoking regional nostalgia as well as racial division. While the language of the statuary may speak of southern tradition, history, and pride in the Confederate cause to some onlookers, the very same statuary may remind African Americans, such as Arthur Ashe, of the racist attitudes which first enslaved and subsequently discriminated against them for decades following the Civil War. Americans derive personal significance from their individual interpretations of the most public statuary, not just the men commemorated on Monument Avenue. Personal identification with the story embodied in the statue depends largely on one's own history and tradition. The controversy over Ashe's placement on the avenue identifies the ability of one's regional identity to subvert one's broader "American" identity. In the case of Monument Avenue, the tradition of southern pride prevents the street from becoming a dedication to all great men as Southern supporters of the Confederacy fight to maintain the avenue's regional integrity and maintain the historical context of its erection.

The analysis on the following pages investigates the larger conflicts implicit within the debate over the placement of the Ashe statue on the "America's Most Beautiful Boulevard."

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