Yet over the past month, a possibility shimmered on the Virginia horizon and beyond: As Confederate statue after Confederate statue toppled one way or another and headed for the storage sheds, it seemed, after all this time and tortured history, the six somehow might distill to one: Ashe, the adored tennis star, author and civil rights humanitarian.
Asked whether she ever foresaw such a potential development, former Virginia delegate Viola Baskerville, a Richmond native and former vice mayor, said: “Never. Never. Never.”
Richmond’s mayor got busy hiring cranes, history birthed another amalgam, and the statues have wound up pared from six to a misfitted two: Ashe and Robert E. Lee. And while Lee’s plausible exit with the horse he rode in on remains stalled in the tangle of litigation, Ashe figures to stay put, even after some family members expressed trepidation that potential retribution might warrant relocation. That had happened June 17, after graffiti swamped the other statues amid protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, when Ashe’s got its own trace of unwanted paint — “White Lives Matter” — before some citizens applied some ferocious cleansers and hurriedly erased it.
The family will not request even a temporary removal, Ashe’s nephew, David Harris Jr., told the Associated Press on Friday, leaving the fleeting doubt as another bygone bump in a road that has known greater bumpiness: its outset in the mid-1990s, when the idea of Ashe’s placement on Monument Avenue wreaked wrangling.
Favoring that Ashe stand on Monument Avenue from the beginning were city council members such as Baskerville, Chuck Richardson and Tim Kaine, as well as L. Douglas Wilder, the governor from 1990 to 1994, who stressed that what he calls “the living room of the city” ought to feature its most revered native.
Argument arrived in multiple streams, Baskerville recalled, from African Americans who didn’t want Ashe sullied on “an avenue of losers” to citizens who preferred Ashe in Byrd Park overlooking the courts where segregation once denied him access to those who “didn’t like the art,” she said. “And then there were, of course, the Confederate sympathizers who said no.” Even the sculptor, Paul DiPasquale, who had discussed the work by telephone with Ashe two weeks before Ashe’s death in February 1993 of complications from AIDS after he contracted HIV from a post-surgery blood transfusion, had thought: “I felt like I knew Monument Avenue was going to be a fight, and I didn’t want to lose, and I thought it would dishonor Arthur Ashe [to lose]. So I was against it.”
It all swept into a long and crowded and contentious city council meeting July 17, 1995, and past midnight into July 18, when the council voted, 7-0, for Ashe on Monument Avenue.
“The tension in the room was one I had never, ever felt in a public meeting,” Baskerville said. “It was very smothering. It was very tense. It was stressful.”
Disagreement persisted into 1996 as, on New Year’s Day, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Arthur’s widow, penned an op-ed column in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, preferring the idea of the statue at the prospective African American sports museum her husband had envisioned.
Yet upon the dedication July 10, 1996, an Ashe-like calm took hold and held on. Johnnie Ashe, Arthur’s younger brother whose 20 years in the Marine Corps included a second tour of Vietnam that enabled Arthur to keep pursuing tennis, found himself noticing a house three homes down.
At age 9, he had helped his uncle paint that house.
Now, on the same avenue, he gave a speech.
“Well, it was rewarding,” Johnnie Ashe said by telephone Wednesday evening. “And it was fitting, considering all that Arthur had done for Richmond, the state of Virginia. Because growing up, I could drive down that street, but I could never walk down that street. You walk down that street, people would be opening doors, ‘Boy, what are you doing around here?’ That was off-limits unless you were going to somebody’s house to work. And when I was a child, if you went to somebody’s house to work, you went to the back door.’ ”
He said, “I think the thing that struck me the most about [the unveiling] was how well it was received.” Wilder remembered “the people bringing their kids up, the children.” Donald Dell, Ashe’s longtime lawyer and friend, remembers such loveliness that he didn’t even notice the objectors marginalized in the distance. Baskerville recalled: “It was surreal. I felt as if Richmond was turning a page in its history and was starting to acknowledge that the Confederate monuments should not be there, but it was not at the point we are now, which is 20-some years later, but was starting to put a marker in the earth, in that we are starting to honor a new generation of people who speak and fight for the truth and support all people.”
The likeness of Ashe — that decent, unassuming former Richmond kid Wilder used to see when “the racket was bigger than he was” — stood peacefully at 28 feet for the next 24 years, with the Ashe part the top 12 of the feet. The only African American man to win Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open stood there in likeness holding a tennis racket high and a book higher, four children attentive toward him in DiPasquale’s rendition. The statue became either the first or last depending on your direction, about a third of a mile from the next: Matthew Fontaine Maury, the scientist and Confederate naval officer who contributed much to the country but also advocated repairing the sin of slavery by forcing enslaved human beings off to Brazil.
Months into the calm, DiPasquale ushered to the statue the former city councilman Richardson, who had missed the unveiling while jailed for a conviction stemming from his struggle with drugs. “He couldn’t come to the dedication,” DiPasquale said, “but when he got out of jail, he said, ‘I would like to go see the statue with you.’ He looked at it, he said, ‘This could only happen in America, that a man like Arthur Ashe, being Arthur Ashe, could stand on an avenue with Confederate soldiers who fought to keep him enslaved!’ ”
On June 10, protesters yanked down the statue of Jefferson Davis.
That left five.
On July 1, a city-hired crane under “emergency orders” from Mayor Levar Stoney (D) turned up to remove Stonewall Jackson before a crowd mainly pleased.
That left four.
On July 2, a crane came for Maury.
That left three.
On July 8, a crane found J.E.B. Stuart.
That left two, and as Gov. Ralph Northam (D) already had advocated the removal of the mammoth, state-owned statue of Lee on horseback, the oldest of the bunch at 130 years, it does seem the Ashe statue might stand powerfully alone.
“That is incredible,” Dell said. “That is incredible.”
Johnnie Ashe said he hadn’t given any thought to the last-statue-standing concept but said: “I do think, in all this time, it was truly the first instrument of change in Richmond. I really do. I mean, true change. Because by virtue of the statue going there, it let the business people know the city of Richmond was capable of change.”
“I definitely think it’s powerful, but I have no desire for it to be a focus,” said Luchia Ashe, Arthur’s niece, who also spoke at the dedication, “because the whole is more important. The ideals and the changes that my uncle worked for during his life are more important than the monuments. So I absolutely agree it is powerful he will be the only one standing; however, if change can happen with works, that will be more powerful to me than the monument standing there himself.”
In that very vein, the Lee statue bubbles as a hub. The departed victims of police shootings have turned up in well-crafted displays with photographs and descriptions. A considerable sign has renamed the circle “Marcus-David Peters Circle,” remembering a 24-year-old Richmond high school biology teacher killed by police in May 2018 after a harrowing mental health episode on a Monday during which Peters had taught a full set of classes.
His uncle, Jeffery Peters, sat across the street from the Lee statue on a recent Friday — in the shade, in a lawn chair, keeping vigil. His voice rang with untold agony as he wondered how police could have come to shoot a naked, unarmed man, his nephew, who lunged at the officer on Interstate 95. Some view the case as an exhibit for relieving police of the particular duties better suited to mental health professionals.
“I just come down here to uplift his name because I don’t want him to be known as the crazy naked black man,” Peters said. “I want him to be known as the intelligent black citizen who paid his taxes, and the people he paid his taxes to killed him.”
He lamented all the layers of government that have left the family further dismayed. And he looked across toward Lee’s likeness and said, “As long as that man is up there, the same laws still apply.”
About 1⅓ miles from Lee, Ashe still stood Friday morning on the 77th anniversary of his birth, his goodness retold in a thousand recollections. Dell recalled Ashe’s three-volume series on the history of the African American athlete: “It’s quite unusual and very, very well done. He was well ahead of all the things we’re doing now.”
Wilder told of the time Ashe brought family members to dinner in the main dining room at the governor’s mansion and instructed the younger ones: “I want you to understand something: You’re here sitting in a place where the only way you could come to it was to serve [meals]. Don’t let this moment pass you by. Drink it in so you can reach your potential.”
And even a Virginia-raised reporter who asked an ignorant question in Los Angeles got goodness in return. In 1988, near the end of an hour-long interview in the tennis stands at UCLA, the reporter wondered about Ashe’s experiences playing juniors in Richmond. Ashe, who wrote later in his memoir about his determination to refrain from embarrassing any questioner, replied calmly: “Son, you’re from Virginia. You know better than that.”
(He hadn’t been allowed to play juniors.)
“Arthur always believed one thing,” Dell said. “He always believed more people were good than not.”
And as of Friday, the possibility still flickered that, if five other statues wind up cleared as evildoers, there might stand alone the goodness that abounded in Ashe.