July 09, 2019 News & Features » Cover Story

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New Signs, Same Heartbreak 

Welcome to Arthur Ashe Boulevard, where custodians sweat out of sight to preserve the tennis great’s legacy and Lost Cause canvases rest in temperature-controlled glory.

click to enlarge The Virginia Museum of History & Culture hosted the Arthur Ashe Boulevard renaming ceremony June 22. This building served as the Confederate Memorial Institute until 1948. The museum continues to re-evaluate its Lost Cause roots in new exhibits.

Scott Elmquist

The Virginia Museum of History & Culture hosted the Arthur Ashe Boulevard renaming ceremony June 22. This building served as the Confederate Memorial Institute until 1948. The museum continues to re-evaluate its Lost Cause roots in new exhibits.

People pay good money to tour Pripyat, Ukraine, the town evacuated in April 1986 as the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded. It's a town preserved in that moment, broken by nature and radioactive contamination.

For the budget traveler seeking stories of government betrayal, the Arthur Ashe Jr. Athletic Center is radiation-free and still more undisturbed. Built in 1982, period details stick out. Paper towel dispensers require a twisting motion that anyone younger than 30, or not a Richmond Public School student, has never performed. The cinder blocks, the grandstands and the tiles all evoke a bygone era.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

The trophy case stops at 1993, when someone tacked Ashe's funeral program in place. Only 49 at the time of his death in New York, Ashe had returned often to the Southern city that told him he couldn't play tennis in Byrd Park. He wanted to help Richmond change.

Two miles in a straight line from the Boulevard's Byrd Park, seven years after Ashe won Wimbledon, this building opened as a place for Richmond Public School students to play, sheltered from the heat. It also held his funeral.

Ten air-conditioning compressors cooled the 6,000-capacity building when it opened. Today, as custodians set up a "thank you" banquet for school custodial staff — amid layoffs — they glisten in silence. Why is it so hot?

"It's a complete shit hole," 2nd Councilwoman Kimberly Gray says as she enters.

She says only two of the compressors still work and the others would cost $1.3 million to fix. She says that the school administration that owns the building, and Mayor Levar Stoney, would rather watch it rot, then sell.

A custodian mumbles, then repeats, that only one compressor works. The buzzing in the otherwise silent building is one large fan.

click to enlarge The Virginia Museum of History & Culture’s “Seasons of the Confederacy” still has pride of place, but now has added context. - TOM NASH
  • Tom Nash
  • The Virginia Museum of History & Culture’s “Seasons of the Confederacy” still has pride of place, but now has added context.

Three days later, children will play tennis here to cap a weeklong series of events commemorating the renaming of the Boulevard to honor Ashe. The pink walls and green ductwork will stick out to out-of-town dignitaries upon entry. Then, they'll feel that same dismal heat the children and the appreciated custodians feel.

Moving south on Boulevard from the Ashe Center, most buildings have undergone change. Strip club Richard's Rendezvous holds out, but expectant mothers are doing yoga and observing its empty parking lot from MyBirthRVA, one of several hip spots at the edge of Scott's Addition. Past the intersection at Broad, history also is changing. Two institutions with Confederate roots confront their past. A few neighbors sulk.

Perhaps the shifting winds pushed the invisible energy matter in Richmond enough to see the street that once served as a retirement home for the Lost Cause take the name of someone who lobbed past white supremacy.

The name of this street is changing. What else?

Bill Martin offers a few answers on a drive that begins at the Valentine, the cultural institution always searching for new Richmond stories. He winds from downtown toward the Ashe Center. So much is changing. As the Valentine's director, famous for his historic tours, he's keeping tabs.

The north side of Boulevard, he says, was "sort of where things on the fringe happened." LGBTQ history is abundant. Scott's Addition and its industrial, art deco-flourished buildings have seen the biggest shift into breweries for hordes of beer tourists. Crossing Monument Avenue and Broad toward the Stonewall Jackson statue, he notes how much of Richmond is visible along these two miles.

"It's a singular experience that in many ways shows the opportunities of the city," Martin says, "and many of its challenges."

How are the Ashe Center and the gelato spot 700 yards away so far apart?

"There was a total disinvestment in urban infrastructure," he says. "That's not uncommon in urban places throughout the '80s and '90s, whether it's Richmond or Detroit."

As Jackson gets closer, we've entered the former Confederate district. Several decades after downtown burned and Lincoln left, Confederate veteran and city engineer Wilfred Emory Cutshaw was inspired to create a European-style street befitting a remade city, and war widows brought their work here.

"A woman's official role in the South was to mourn," Martin begins, and pauses, "White women. There was certainly a whole different experience for folks who weren't white. But for white women in Richmond, you had to do something. Otherwise, you'd have to say, 'We kept an entire group of people enslaved.'"

"So then, you start saying, 'Well, they must have been happy, and our guys who died must have been noble cavaliers.' They put things together in a way that made them able to go about daily lives without being burdened by the horrors they experienced. That manifests in horrible ways."

For some, being unburdened meant maintaining white supremacy. Men put on robes and made new laws to control through violence. Women formed the United Daughters of the Confederacy to control through narrative.

Every woman descended from someone who served the Confederacy is eligible — unless that ancestor took an oath of allegiance to the United States during the war.

The headquarters, nestled between the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, features an oversized, Oz-like door that might withstand Yankee artillery. Flying the Stars and Bars, not the more widely known and reviled Confederate battle flag, was de rigueur. This marble bunker is a lone survivor from a vision of a Confederate century.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts explores that vision in a now-reopened house on its grounds featuring an exhibit that addresses the history of the R.E. Lee Camp No. 1 for veterans and the Confederate Memorial Institute. A Confederate soldiers' home on the property gradually faded, leaving a memorial chapel behind. The museum endures lingering protests from flaggers who object to the museum's removal of Confederate flags from the chapel.

click to enlarge The Daughters of the Confederacy’s headquarters, between the VMFA and the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, flew Confederate flags until recently. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The Daughters of the Confederacy’s headquarters, between the VMFA and the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, flew Confederate flags until recently.

The museum still plays host to the United Daughters of Confederacy for chapel events. In a statement provided to Style, Stephen Bonadies, senior deputy director for conservation and collections, says that should not be read as approval: "As a neighboring institution, VMFA has a collegial relationship with the United Daughters of the Confederacy but does not advocate or endorse its commemorative missions."

The museum is also speaking to its neighbors through art. Earlier this year the museum used the chapel for a sound work that features a speech by civil rights icon and U.S. Rep. John Lewis. Two days before the renaming ceremony, the museum announced that a sculpture by artist Kehinde Wiley, made in reaction to Monument Avenue's Confederate statues, would go on permanent display out front.

While the Virginia Museum navigates its role as heir to a landscape with Confederate and post Civil War history, the Virginia Museum of History & Culture is rooted in Confederate history. As Monument Avenue took shape in the 1900s, Lost Cause enthusiasts proposed a structure, Battle Abbey, that would serve as a Confederate reliquary on Boulevard.

Enthusiasm dwindled. The Virginia Historical Society moved to the building in 1959. Founded in 1831 and originally mostly a research library, the society adopted a broader mission as it began acquiring artifacts. In 2018, it adopted the new name, the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, to match a new permanent exhibit telling the state's story with 21st century language about the Confederacy's legacy. Confederate emblems at the former Battle Abbey entrance are now covered. Images of Ashe flank the door.

click to enlarge A casino is visible on the far left of this early 1900s photograph of Byrd Park. - THE VALENTINE
  • The Valentine
  • A casino is visible on the far left of this early 1900s photograph of Byrd Park. 

A day before the renaming ceremony, Tracy Schneider, the museum's vice president of communications, posed for a photo with an Ashe '68 Virtual Reality Experience headset in front of the hidden emblems. She explained that the cover-up was strictly practical. Sound was reverberating during cocktail receptions.

"We are proud of the direction the museum's going in," Schneider adds.

A few feet from the headsets, and not far from a new exhibit on Virginia's black history, Battle Abbey's origins are explained with a modern lens on Lost Cause ideology. Next to that, four gigantic paintings by French artist Charles Hoffbauer rest illuminated in darkness. "Seasons of the Confederacy" is etched in the marble floor in front. In the gallery, a new column reads, in part: "These murals are evidence of the widespread postwar effort by former Confederates to justify and glorify the Confederacy known as the Lost Cause." 

Do these paintings belong on Arthur Ashe Boulevard at all? Should the Daughters of the Confederacy retreat?

"I would suggest that they need to coexist," Martin says of the dueling realities. "It reminds us of Richmond's history, which is this complex, schizophrenic thing."

An Italian-American hero of the early 20th century, Christopher Columbus is now a recognized genocide purveyor in the 21st. As Martin's tour winds around the end of Boulevard, he points to Columbus' statute. He explains that in the 1920s, as the Ku Klux Klan expanded its hatred and the U.S. locked itself down to all immigration, Richmond's Italian-Americans made a statement — "and that's when this starts playing out."

Just in front of Columbus are Byrd Park's tennis courts. The courts are just across from a trolley line that once ran right up to a casino. This end of the street is where white Richmond could play.

click to enlarge Children played inside and outside the Ashe Center as part of the renaming celebration June 22. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Children played inside and outside the Ashe Center as part of the renaming celebration June 22.

This is where Ashe was barred from playing tennis as a child in the 1950s because he was black. This is where he returned in 1968 with a team that won the Davis Cup. And this is where Virginia Commonwealth University Lobs and Lessons coordinator John Leslie rested after participating in Tennis Under the Lights on a Friday night, also part of the renaming celebration.

"Tomorrow night, there's an awesome event at the Ashe Center that I'm proud to be a part of," he says.

Leslie had only been inside the Ashe Center a few weeks before.

"It's not so great. It's stuck in the 1970s. Think of all the technology advances we've had all over Richmond. Look at the VMFA, and then look at a historic place like the Ashe Center."

Leslie says the renaming is a proud moment. But while Byrd Park's tennis courts are no longer segregated by law, Richmond is still Richmond. Tennis remains a predominantly white sport, and discrimination still happens.

"My story — as an African-American tennis player — that stuff happens all the time. I know a tennis player 13 or 14 not allowed into country clubs to play.

"I've played all over the country and places all over the world," Leslie adds. "Richmond is in a little bubble. In 2019, this is the most influential tennis player in history and this is the center he gets in Richmond? We can do a lot better.

"Hopefully, in another 20 years, we'll have another event."

Under a blaring sun, 3,000 people gathered on the front steps of the former Battle Abbey, just outside the covered Confederate flags and reverently lit paintings of Generals Lee and Stuart on horses, Dominion Energy's chief executive, Thomas Farrell, welcomed the large crowd to the Arthur Ashe Boulevard renaming ceremony.

click to enlarge Second District City Councilwoman Kimberly Gray says the Ashe Center needs repairs, and that redevelopment may mean the building’s future is in doubt. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Second District City Councilwoman Kimberly Gray says the Ashe Center needs repairs, and that redevelopment may mean the building’s future is in doubt.

Council member Gray led the effort to rename Boulevard, after being approached by Ashe's nephew in the wake of the 2017 white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. After threatening voicemails, emails pleading to respect Cutshaw's legacy, and in-person confrontations, she kept pushing. This third attempt in nearly three decades worked, with one abstention and eight yeas from City Council.

Gray watched Farrell — whose utility behemoth is fighting to put a gas compressor station in predominantly black Union Hill in Buckingham County — make his introduction from her seat in the audience. Farrell credited Gray, saying, "we should thank her for making this possible."

Gov. Ralph Northam, nationally disgraced by February's blackface and Ku Klux Klan hood yearbook photo revelation, received some applause. Sen. Tim Kaine got a hero's welcome. David Harris Jr., the nephew who kickstarted the renaming, thanked Gray and at one point motioned behind him, saying, "there are many who avoided this building because of what's inside."

Stoney's speech received cheers when he cited the renaming of J.E.B. Stuart Elementary after President Barack Obama. Lewis offered a keynote speech and visited the chapel installation afterward. Gray joined Stoney on stage to unveil the street signs.

Richmond resident Audrey Gadson, who attended Ashe's funeral, was glad to see the moment come.

"It's a great way to show young people there's positiveness out here," she says. "You just have to go for it."

This moment contrasts sharply with the state of Ashe's center.

"It's heartbreaking."

Arthur Ashe
  • Arthur Ashe

A few days earlier, the sweating custodian expressed similar frustration. But as a central recreational location meant for all Richmond Public School students to enjoy, there are some rewards: "Just seeing the look on their faces. The children that come here love it."

During most of the school year, the heating system works to keep students comfortable. The fans come out when spring turns to summer, and a 90-degree building is cooler than 100-degree heat outside.

For all the reconciling on Arthur Ashe Boulevard from formally Confederate-centered institutions, Gray says that this is the building that shouldn't stay a relic. She gained more clarity on the importance of the Ashe Center in the reactions she received from some, mostly white, residents who opposed the name change. Changing stationary is expensive, she heard, among other inconveniences. Some of it, she says, was "blatant racism."

The anger from some residents was hard to miss.

"I went to hug someone at a Fan District meeting last month, and she says, 'Don't touch me. I don't want to see you, I don't want to talk to you. I'm very angry about Arthur Ashe Boulevard.'"

Gray took the criticism in stride. It faded. The United Daughters of the Confederacy website still refers to the War Between the States on its home page but did update the street name of its address.

Gray also took in stride that she was not invited to speak on that Saturday. The relationship between Gray and Stoney could cool the Ashe Center. There have been calls for her to run for mayor while Stoney has aired his displeasure that she voted against his attempt to wrest control of the Monument Avenue statues from the General Assembly.

Gray, sweating alongside the custodian, says that money needs to go into this building's air conditioning first. She was also excluded from the decision to hold a post-ceremony event here. She didn't attend.

"I take shame in the fact that this building has not been maintained. Shame. People are in here sweating to death, and we can't find the money to fix it."

"Please get it," the custodian chimes in.

"They're not going to do it," Gray says. "There are schemes and plans in motion. That's part of why this building has been neglected for so long."

Reconvening in the ice-cold Starbucks attached to Growlers to Go — a development owned by 2016 election rival Charlie Diradour — Gray explains that somewhere between Stoney and Virginia Commonwealth University's vision for the Diamond, the Ashe Center is endangered.

click to enlarge Jamie Bosket, president of the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, speaks at the renaming ceremony. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Jamie Bosket, president of the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, speaks at the renaming ceremony.

So far, VCU has only issued conceptual drawings of new facilities for its athletes, all adjacent to the center. Gray says that for the mayoral and school administrations, the center is worth more dead than alive.

Asked by email if there were plans to repair the building, or sell it, School Superintendent Jason Kamras said: "We are in the midst of reviewing all of our properties as part of a Rezoning and Facility Planning process, which should conclude this winter. That process will drive any future plans for the Ashe Center."

Mayoral spokesman Jim Nolan deferred questions about the Ashe Center to the schools, adding: "Our interest in developing available city land off Arthur Ashe Boulevard is well-known, but we do not have a development plan at this time."

Whatever plan emerges, Gray has one main concern: "I would not allow a community asset like this to go away without better facilities for our community."

She says promoting Ashe's legacy — beyond gestures — means making and keeping spaces that welcome all: "You should be able to find a place on Arthur Ashe Boulevard and prosper and be happy."

The United Daughters of the Confederacy did not respond to requests for comment on the renaming, and whether it invaded the group's own place of prosperity and happiness.

On the day of the ceremony, the stars and bars flag was gone.

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