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A True Champion 

Richmonder Arthur Ashe celebrated with renaming of Boulevard.

click to enlarge City Councilwoman Kim Gray and Mayor Levar Stoney stand in front of the steps of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture at the moment of the unveiling of the new Arthur Ashe Boulevard street sign on Saturday, June 22.

Scott Elmquist

City Councilwoman Kim Gray and Mayor Levar Stoney stand in front of the steps of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture at the moment of the unveiling of the new Arthur Ashe Boulevard street sign on Saturday, June 22.

Sitting under a crystal-blue sky, surrounded by family and friends, elected officials and hundreds of Richmonders, Loretta Harris felt a sense of pride and justice as her son, David Harris Jr., helped unveil street signs saying Arthur Ashe Boulevard.

More than a quarter century after Ashe’s death, his family’s goal to rename the Boulevard for Ashe was now a reality. At the ceremony, Harris was struck by how her son had lived up to the example set by his uncle.

“Arthur Jr. encouraged my son years ago to finish school,” she said, a characteristic statement by her brother, who became famous for his tennis game but devoted much of his time in retirement to the education of children. He believed that he should “make things happen for the people, and to take care of the kids. That was his focus.”

A slate of speakers, including civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Sen. Tim Kaine, U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin, Gov. Ralph Northam and Mayor Levar Stoney, spoke from the steps at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture on Saturday to officially dedicate the renamed boulevard.

Ashe’s nephew David Harris was one of several speakers who thanked City Councilor Kim Gray, who introduced the most recent effort last year to rename the Boulevard. “You are courageous. To council, thank you for joining her.”

Despite acknowledgements for her work, Gray was not included among the dignitaries on stage until the end, when she joined Harris and Stoney to unveil the street signs. Some Richmonders, including Paul Goldman, called out Gray’s omission on social media, as well as the fact that no women were among the speakers during the dedication.

“It was disappointing but not surprising that there were no women speakers,” says Chelsea Higgs Wise, a local racial equity facilitator and activist, in an interview with Style. “It’s such a missed opportunity.”

In an interview on Sunday, Gray said that the day was very meaningful to her, and that she shed tears during Lewis’ speech, which she took in while sitting in the audience, next to Gold Star father Khizr Khan, whom Gray had invited.

“I was so proud of our city. Not one argument, not one protester. It was peaceful,” she said. “It hasn’t even sunk in, the significance of what it means for our city.”

Gray said that she was upset when she wasn’t allowed to see plans for the program for three weeks before the celebration, and figured that she wouldn’t be invited to speak. But “by the time that the event rolled around, it was OK,” she said. “It’s bigger than any of us. It really is. I think everybody who was there felt part of the message and the unity. It’s all about Arthur Ashe.”

Asked about Gray’s exclusion from speaking, the mayor’s office emailed Style that “the program assembled by the Virginia Museum of History and Culture featured nine speakers and called for the leading local representative of federal, state and local governments to provide remarks. That is why Governor Northam, Senator Kaine, Congressman McEachin and Mayor Stoney were the designees. The Mayor was delighted to recognize Councilwoman Gray in his remarks for her work in city council to advance the name change and thrilled that she accepted his invitation to join him and David Harris on stage.”

On Saturday, hundreds paid tribute to Ashe. Many were African-American Richmonders around Ashe’s age, who were joined by people of other races and ages on the lawn facing the boulevard. A group of four drummers from the Elegba Folklore Society performed, along with the Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church choir.

An energetic Stoney told the crowd: “Today we celebrate a true champion, not just on the tennis court but on the world stage,” and exhorted the audience to say in unison: “Arthur Ashe Boulevard!”

Lewis, who knew Ashe, focused on the civil rights struggles that both he and Ashe participated in during the 1960s and afterward. Lewis encouraged the audience, particularly the younger members, to stand up for the U.S. democracy, which he said was in “deep trouble. When you see something that is not right, not fair, say something! Do something!”

Born in Richmond’s North Side in 1943, Ashe was prevented from playing on the Byrd Park tennis courts because of citywide segregation policies, but won three Grand Slam titles, including the 1968 U.S. Open and 1975 Wimbledon men’s singles tournaments, and remains the only black man to ever do so.

Ashe spoke out against South Africa’s apartheid and was arrested multiple times during protests, and also had planned to take part in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign in 1968 before King was assassinated. In retirement, Ashe founded the National Junior Tennis League and the Virginia Heroes program, which pairs Richmond City Schools students with mentors.

After the dedication, McEachin and two colleagues from the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Bobby Scott of Norfolk and Rep. Karen Bass of California, its chairwoman, took part in a panel discussion about the state of black America, and a new exhibit, “Determined: the 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality,” opened at the history museum.

The unveiling was not without its political ironies, with Northam making one of his first public appearances since a racist photo on his medical school yearbook pages was revealed in February.

He received polite applause, but the audience was most enthusiastic for Lewis and Kaine, who was on City Council in 1994, when it voted to approve the statue of Ashe on Monument Avenue.

Recalling a seven-hour meeting with hundreds of speakers, Kaine said the renaming of the boulevard is just as important as the statue. Often, he noted, street names are decided by a “tiny subset” of powerful people who may not take into account the community’s views and erase the history of marginalized people. “This is an attempt to rectify that.”

Loretta Harris also savored the day, as friends and family greeted her with hugs.

“The timing was right,” she said. “All of a sudden, we got a lift. My brother would be happy today.”

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