With the pull of a cord that unveiled a statue of hometown hero Arthur Ashe Jr., the Confederate capital's landmark thoroughfare was transformed today from a period piece to what former governor L. Douglas Wilder proclaimed as "an avenue for all people."

Ashe, who learned to play tennis on the city's segregated playgrounds and rose to become Wimbledon's first black champion and an eloquent writer and spokesman for education and equal rights, took his place among the Confederate icons memorialized on Monument Avenue: Robert E. Lee, Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson and other lights of the Lost Cause.

Ashe's final triumph over adversity, like many of his victories at tennis tournaments around the world, did not come easily. Virtually every facet of the statue -- its placement, its size, its style -- has been criticized by black and white people here.

Some white people believe the grand avenue, which has been called "the Champs Elysees of the South," should have remained the preserve of Confederate heroes; some blacks don't like the idea of Ashe being memorialized in a hostile environment. But a 1991 survey indicated that almost half the residents of Richmond -- where the population is about 50 percent black -- believe statues of civil rights leaders also should be placed on the avenue to balance the street's symbolism.

Some divisions that surfaced during the debate over the Ashe statue were evident at today's unveiling, which took place before about 1,500 people on what would have been Ashe's 53rd birthday. Ashe died three years ago of complications resulting from AIDS, which he contracted from a blood transfusion during heart surgery 10 years earlier. He is buried at Woodland Cemetery here.

"Let the rancor end and the discord cease about the insignificant incidentals leading to his moment," Wilder, a close friend of Ashe's, told the crowd. ". . . Is it big enough? Is it wide enough? Are the clothes right?" Such questions, Wilder said, are "of no moment. When the thing is right, the time is always right, and this is right for Arthur Ashe."

As Wilder and 10 other speakers called for unity and understanding, two dozen protesters stood quietly at the rim of the crowd, displaying Confederate flags and banners.

"Remove this statue's weight of hate from a Confederate memorial," one banner said. Another said the Ashe statue's placement on Monument Avenue amounted to a "Hate Crime" that defaced a Confederate memorial.

Self-employed Richard Hines, of Alexandria, contended that the Ashe monument was "placed here to debunk our heritage."

Freelance writer David Ritchey, also of Alexandria, said Richmond's black community "has allowed itself to be a pawn of the liberal media," which seeks not to honor Ashe but to ridicule southern history.

"On their own," Ritchey said, blacks "wouldn't have placed it here. They have their own part of town."

But Wilder, the grandson of a slave who in 1989 became the nation's first elected black governor, said the Ashe statue's placement on Monument Avenue symbolizes improved racial relations in Richmond and Virginia. "I feel more pride and relevance in being here on Monument Avenue than I have any time in my life, and that says it all," he said. "When the ground was broken" for the Ashe memorial, "more than dirt was removed. The shell of our understanding was penetrated."

Ashe's brother, Johnnie E. Ashe, said that "as soon as a date was set" for the unveiling, "the inquisition began." He said he tried to stay out of the controversy, but "deep in my heart I knew, Arthur belongs here. Arthur Ashe Jr. is a true Virginia hero."

The beleaguered sculptor, Paul Di Pasquale, whose work was the subject of barbs and criticism -- for a while there was an effort to put his work in storage and conduct an international competition -- beamed up at his work and said, "this surpasses my expectation. This is where it's supposed to be."

Di Pasquale, 45, a New Jersey native who has lived in Richmond for much of the last 20 years, said a chance meeting with Ashe here four years ago inspired the project, which Ashe approved before his death.

More than $400,000 -- including a $100,000 donation from the city -- was raised by Virginia Heroes Inc., an organization founded by Ashe, to pay for the 28-foot-tall memorial. On top of a marble base, a 12-foot, bronzed likeness of Ashe holds a tennis racket in one hand and books in the other, surrounded by four schoolchildren looking up at him.

The monument closest to the Ashe tribute, which is at Monument and Roseneath avenues at the edge of Richmond's historic district, is that of Civil War oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury, three blocks to the east.

The Maury monument, the last of the five Civil War memorials, was built in 1929. When the first memorial, honoring Lee, was completed in 1890, it was in the middle of a cornfield. But by 1910, many of the city's leading families had built mansions along the new street that stretched west from Lee.

Over the years four other statues were built, honoring Confederate Generals Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Maury.

Monument Avenue, a prime tourist attraction, still boasts many of the city's finest houses, but it also is home to college students, single people and young couples, including a few blacks, who live in houses that have been divided into apartments. Joggers and dog walkers have worn paths in its wide, grassy median.

Richmond resident Beth Demerel, who said she is a Civil War historian with pictures of Confederate heroes throughout her house, said she was embarrassed by the protest during the ceremony for the Ashe statue. "This is inappropriate. You know this is offensive," she said to one man holding a Confederate flag.

Demerel said she would have preferred to see an Ashe statue placed in nearby Byrd Park, where he was barred from the whites-only tennis courts as a youth. Nevertheless, she said, "this is a good day for Richmond." CAPTION: A Tribute to Ashe: A statue honoring tennis great Arthur Ashe Jr. was unveiled yesterday in Richmond on Monument Avenue, the Confederate capital's landmark thoroughfare, amid praise and a small protest. Above, Lowell Rose, 4, of Stony Creek, Va., gets closer look at the monument. (Photo ran on page A01) CAPTION: Marie Johnson Cunningham, an aunt of Arthur Ashe's who bought him his first tennis racket, laughs with former governor L. Douglas Wilder. CAPTION: Statue shows Ashe surrounded by children and holding books and a tennis racket. CAPTION: From left, Ann Robinson, Carolyn Dillard and Margaret Williams, all of Richmond, are part of the cheering crowd.