By Carol A.O. Wolf
The latest volley of words from those who want to rename the Boulevard to honor internationally known native son and tennis champion Arthur Ashe Jr., and those who prefer to leave well enough alone, is heating up. Again. Two prior efforts, one in 1993 and one in 2003, failed.
The catalyst for this most recent volley is a proposal from Richmond City Council member Kimberly B. Gray, who said she asked for the change after being approached by David Harris Jr., Ashe's nephew.
The proposal caught some property owners along the Boulevard unaware and some now say the name change is inconvenient and unnecessary. They worry that the name change would lead to lost mail, extra expenses for new letterhead and advertising displays with the old address, according to several who spoke at a recent meeting.
However, one supporter later questioned "how inconvenient was it for Arthur to have to leave Richmond in order to learn how to play tennis?"
Proponents include the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Scott's Addition Boulevard Association, the Monument Avenue Preservation Society and the West Grace Street Association.
Gray says she brought the proposal forward because it meaningful on several levels:
- Ashe, a native son of Richmond, was an internationally known and an accomplished athlete and advocate on civil rights issues deserving of greater recognition in his hometown.
- Not only was he a 1961 graduate of Maggie L. Walker High School, but he was first in his class. In a city that has the lowest graduation rate in the state, he would be is an excellent role model for children to see what can be accomplished by dedication and determination.
- And finally, recognizing and embracing Ashe and his legacy would bring added cachet to Richmond's efforts to enhance its image as a tourist destination.
But, perhaps the most enduring level to appreciate the renaming is that it will serve a sense of hope to impoverished children in Richmond (and elsewhere) of the importance of family, discipline and determination.
Hear me out. When Ashe's mother died when he was 6 years old, it fell to his father to raise their two boys — Arthur and Johnnie. Arthur Senior had to be both mother and father and instill in them home training as well as the importance of integrity, hard work and protecting one's reputation.
The renaming effort presents a perfect and positive way to raise awareness of the inherent power of the black family. Ashe's story underscores the importance of fathers to help raise strong and wise children. It serves as powerful evidence of what can happen when black men live intentionally and nurture the next generation.
In his book, "The Levels of the Game," Pulitzer-Prize winning author John McPhee tells how blacks in Richmond could only play at the Brook Field tennis courts. It was at Brook Field that a 6-year-old Ashe would watch Ronald Charity, then considered by many to be the best black tennis player in Virginia, play for hours and hours.
Arthur's father was a special police officer in charge of discipline at several segregated playgrounds in the city. His family lived in a frame house in the middle of Brook Field adjacent to the tennis courts.
Charity recounts in the McPhee book how Arthur, a skinny little 6-year-old, asked him to teach him how to play tennis. "I put his racket in his hand ... We played every summer evening." When Arthur was 10, Charity used his influence to introduce Arthur to legendary tennis coach Robert Walter Johnson, a physician who ran a military-tight program in Lynchburg to teach students how to play.
Arthur once became so frustrated and angry with the game that he threw his racket across the court. Johnson immediately summoned Arthur's father to come pick him up. McPhee tells of how Arthur Senior drove to Lynchburg and how — in front of Johnson — he asked young Arthur if he wanted to stay.
When young Arthur managed to softly say“yes,” his father said: "Then you do everything he says — no matter what he tells you."
The rest is history. Many city residents have proposed that Ashe's monument be removed from the loser's row of Confederates and placed across from the tennis courts at Byrd Park where Ashe was never allowed to play as a child.
How to pay for this and for the street signs?
Sell the decrepit and rusted out money pit of an athletic facility that bears his name. Use the proceeds to pay for signs and establish a fund to improve the Richmond Public Schools' athletic programs and facilities. S
(Many thanks to Style Weekly for publishing an earlier version of this 10/30/18)
Carol A.O. Wolf is a former associate editor at Style Weekly who served on the Richmond School Board from 2002 to 2008. She writes regularly about the Richmond Public Schools at saveourschools-getrealrichmond.blogspot.com.