Richmond — Thousands of people spilled into the newly re-christened Arthur Ashe Boulevard here on Saturday for a celebration that also marked the unveiling of an exhibit at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture on the struggle for black equality and to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first captive Africans to English North America.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus joined Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and other elected officials on the steps of the museum in what was called a commemoration of remembrance and reflection.
“Four-hundred years later, it’s good to be here,” said civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis. “We cannot remake what happened 400 years ago,” added the Democrat from Georgia, “but we’re here today as one people, as one family.”
City officials shut down several streets and planned to host events throughout the weekend to honor the renaming of a major thoroughfare in honor of Ashe, its native son and tennis legend. The ceremony coincides with the commonwealth’s commemoration this year of four centuries since the twin creations of representative government and the first documented arrival of captured Africans and the start of the brutal system of slavery.
Lewis spoke about nonviolence and forgiveness, but he also encouraged people to stand up and say something when they see injustice. “It’s time for us to get into trouble again — good trouble, necessary trouble,” he said.
Priscilla Copeland, 69, of Henrico arrived early Saturday, eager “to witness history.” Copeland, a retired rehabilitation counselor, said she was one of three African American high school students who integrated schools in Goochland in the mid-1960s.
Calling Ashe an inspiration to others, she said, “Everybody’s in a celebratory mood today because we’re just so happy that they’re doing something for an African American that really stood out. It shows progress.”
James Carr, 50, of Chesterfield County called the moment “history in the making. It means a whole lot — he’s finally getting recognized,” he said.
A photo exhibit lined the sidewalk in front of the museum, showcasing Ashe’s historic victory at the 1968 U.S. Open. Growing up in segregated Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, Ashe was denied access to the all-white Byrd Park recreational facility. But he went on to break barriers in the sports world and became just as recognized as a humanitarian and civil rights activist.
David Harris Jr., Ashe’s nephew, was visibly moved as he addressed the crowd. “Today, we are letting the world know racism, discrimination, exclusionary tactics, lack of investment in our children, education and people is bankrupt,” he said to applause.
The events come as Virginia continues to grapple with its legacy of slavery, segregation and white supremacy. Nearly two years ago, white supremacists marched through the streets of Charlottesville with torches, beat a young black man with poles and rammed a car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing a young woman. Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) both admitted in February to having worn blackface. And the debate over what to do about statues and streets named after members of the Confederacy continues.
Harris thanked Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and city lawmakers for immediately supporting his latest push last year for the name change, after previous efforts failed in 1993 and in 2003.
Kaine also recalled the controversy that erupted 24 years ago when he served on the Richmond City Council over erecting a statue of Ashe on historic Monument Avenue. The Old Dominion is home to more public Confederate monuments than any other state, at least 223, according to a survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center. There are five massive statues along Monument Avenue.
After a ceremony featuring musical performances from the Elegba Folklore Society, which celebrates African and African American culture, and the Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, which dates back to 1867, Stoney and others pulled cords to release purple coverings that revealed street and highway signs bearing Ashe’s name as purple streamers were shot into the air.
As part of the museum’s exhibition, called “Determined: The 400-year Struggle for Black Equality,” visitors were offered a chance to trace the black experience from the Colonial period through today and view rare copies of the Emancipation Proclamation and 13th Amendment signed by Abraham Lincoln.
An artifact of more recent vintage is a tear-gas canister that was used during the August 2017 rioting in Charlottesville. Ashe is one of 30 Virginians highlighted, along with hip-hop and R&B star Missy Elliott and Mildred and Richard Loving, the mixed-race couple whose fight against anti-miscegenation laws led to the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing interracial marriage in Virginia and 15 other states.
Northam, who promised to pursue racial reconciliation as he stayed in office despite calls for his resignation after the blackface scandal, told the crowd that, “African American history, black history, is American history. And the way that we teach that history is inadequate and inaccurate, which makes exhibits like this all the more important.”
Catherine Edwards, a lifelong Richmond resident, emerged from the exhibition and called it “gorgeous,” adding that she found the sections about Elliott and the Jim Crow era especially moving.
The exhibition runs through March 20, 2020.
Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) and members of the Congressional Black Caucus also held a town hall on the State of Black America in the afternoon at the museum while a community block party was held at the Arthur Ashe Jr. Athletic Center.
On Thursday, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, also located on the newly renamed boulevard, announced that it would become the permanent location for a new monumental bronze sculpture by artist Kehinde Wiley to be unveiled on Sept. 27.
Called “Rumors of War,” it was described in a news release from the museum and the artist as an African American subject dressed in urban streetwear astride a massive horse in a striking pose. It is Wiley’s direct response to encountering the J.E.B. Stuart statue on Monument Avenue.
Several Richmond-area residents expressed enthusiasm about the changes underway in the city.
Mikki Middleton, 22, of suburban Chester said, “Being from Virginia and knowing the history of Arthur Ashe — I thought it was the coolest thing that they’re actually naming the street after him.” Especially, she added, because it is so close to Monument Avenue. “To really honor a person of color, especially in this area where you’re surrounded by all of that Confederate history, that means a lot.”
While there have been calls for removing the Confederate statues, Middleton, a mass communications student at Virginia State University, said she didn’t have a strong opinion on that debate.
“When you’re from here, it’s part of Virginia history. I feel like if you delete everything negative in history, you also delete the struggle in how people have been able to overcome those types of things,” she said. “So we can’t just delete everything that was bad about history because there’d be no way to learn from it.”
However, she said, “I think the Kehinde Wiley statue that’s coming sounds really amazing. I can’t wait till that gets here.
Joanne Powell, 66, of Richmond said she had lived in the city for 35 years and was excited about a new emphasis on reflecting diversity and inclusion in its museums.
“Richmond is breaking open,” she said.