After weeks of polarizing debate, the Richmond City Council decided early today to erect a memorial to tennis star Arthur Ashe alongside statues of Confederate war heroes on the city's famed Monument Avenue.

In a symbolic break with its past as the Capital of the Confederacy, the leaders of Ashe's home town approved a 24-foot bronze and granite monument to the late native son just blocks from statues honoring the likes of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart.

The 1:15 a.m. vote culminated a seven-hour council meeting that saw hundreds of black and white residents pack the council chamber to speak out on an issue that touched many in a personal way, even if they had never met Ashe. The surprise appearance of some of Ashe's relatives turned around what seemed to be a movement to abandon the Monument Avenue site, and in the end, seven council members voted for it, with no negative votes and only one abstention.

"I think this is our finest hour," said Mayor Leonidas B. Young, who switched positions, "because it shows that we have grown. It is painful to grow, but if you do not grow, if you do not experience the pain, you will not become everything you can become." For those not present, Young added, "you missed the healing of a city." In a city that regularly divides along racial lines, the emotions became especially raw as Richmond debated the meaning of art, race and history under the glare of the international media.

To its supporters, led by L. Douglas Wilder, the Democrat who was the nation's first elected black governor, the plan to honor Ashe on Monument Avenue was a powerful symbol of racial reconciliation in a city that barred Ashe from playing on its whites-only tennis courts. But opponents included an oil-and-water mix of whites who considered it nothing short of heresy to the Lost Cause and blacks who considered it nothing short of heresy to Ashe.

"Richmond's venting, and the world's getting to watch," Paul Di Pasquale, sculptor of the $400,000 monument to a man he met only once, said before the vote. "Hopefully, Richmond's venting for other people in other places, as well, and they're hearing Arthur Ashe's message."

After leaving segregated Richmond as a young man, Ashe went on to become the first black man to win the U.S. Open and Wimbledon titles. Yet it's not so much as a tennis champion that he is remembered here but as a champion of education, human rights and, ultimately, the fight against AIDS. Complications from the disease claimed him in 1993 after he had contracted it through a heart-bypass operation.

Before his death at age 49, he outlined his wishes for the monument. In it, he grasps a tennis racket in his left hand but holds books in his right hand, which he used to play. The books are held above the racket, to symbolize the importance of education.

That he is a hero is generally acknowledged by both sides. Whether he belongs with the likes of Lee and Jackson is another matter.

The fabled Monument Avenue is Richmond's premier boulevard, often referred to as the Champs Elysees of the South for its wide, tree-lined median and fashionable turn-of-the-century houses.

The idea of adding Ashe originated with Wilder, a friend who made the issue a crusade and who broadcast his daily radio talk show live from the corner of Monument and Roseneath Road Monday morning. "Every time we think we've crossed the bridge, we see that there's more water than we ever thought," the former governor said.

Sitting on the front porch across the street, however, was Mary Carr, a 20-year resident of Monument Avenue who thinks it's a bad idea and resents the implications that her being white has anything to do with it.

"It's really not racial. It's really more artistic," she said. "I just think it's an informal sports statue, and that's fine for what it is, but it doesn't fit into the cohesion of the rest of the avenue. . . . I think we should have a statue to the blacks who fought for the Confederacy. And I think we should build the sports hall of fame he wanted built and put his statue there."

On the other side of town, back in the Northside neighborhood where Ashe grew up, Eugene Price came to a similar conclusion for different reasons. To Price, who went to school with Ashe, Monument Avenue isn't good enough. "The only way we could go to Monument was to run across it," he said recently.

While most opponents disavowed race, the thoughts of some whites were coarser than those of others.

"We need to protect our heritage," a man identified as Ken said on WVGO-FM, a rock-and-roll radio station that took calls on the issue all day. "We don't need no blacks on Monument Avenue. . . . They've taken over our city; they've tried to take over our government. If you've got daughters like I've got daughters, they're trying to take them over, too."

Ashe's family largely tried to stay out of the issue, but his younger brother flew from Atlanta to weigh in on the side of the Monument Avenue site. "These guys were generals," Johnnie Ashe, 47, said of the current bronze denizens. "They were in the background with thousands in front of them. Arthur did what he did on his own."

For the City Council, which sat through six hours of testimony, the issues were about as difficult as they come.

More than 250 people showed up, with many of each race on each side, expressing reasons ranging from aesthetics to traffic. One opponent was escorted out by police after repeated outbursts, and a few supporters suggested tearing down the statues of the generals, but most of the discussion was more sober.

In the end,, Young, who is black, abandoned his own compromise that would have put the statue at Byrd Park, where Ashe was not allowed to play tennis as a boy because of his race, and renamed the adjacent cross-city thoroughfare Arthur Ashe Boulevard, which would lead north to the existing Arthur Ashe Jr. Athletic Center.

A separate memorial, he had suggested, then could be built along Monument Avenue to commemorate African Americans who fought for civil rights. That wasn't good enough for some City Council members. Viola Baskerville said this is an issue that touches the soul of a city. "Ghosts still haunt us," she said earlier. "And we haven't resolved that." CAPTION: The face of Arthur Ashe is portrayed in a casting model for the statue. CAPTION: Sculptor Paul Di Pasquale stands in his Richmond studio with part of the casting model for his monument to tennis star Arthur Ashe.