After Thirty Years of Trying, Richmond's Boulevard Renamed for Arthur Ashe

Jun 19, 2019

 

David Harris Jr., left, the nephew of Arthur Ashe, and Richmond City Council member, Kim Gray, right, look over the tennis courts on the Boulevard which were tennis star Arthur Ashe was banned from in Richmond.
Credit Steve Helber / AP

 

This weekend the Boulevard, a historic road through Virginia’s capital city, will be renamed to Arthur Ashe Boulevard. That’s in honor of the tennis great and humanitarian who was born in Richmond. Ashe died in 1993, and attempts to honor his legacy have been long in the making.

 


It was more than two years ago that Arthur Ashe’s nephew reached out to Richmond city councilwoman Kim Gray, asking for her help in renaming the Boulevard after his uncle.

The street was a perfect fit. At one end is the Arthur Ashe arena, at the other is the tennis courts Ashe wasn’t allowed to play on as a kid.

“Disney couldn’t write a better script,” Gray says. “To be denied based on the color of your skin access to those tennis courts and then to come back and win an international tournament was pretty amazing.”

Standing in front of the Arthur Ashe monument downtown, Gray says she had no idea how difficult an endeavor renaming the street would wind up being. There had always been pushback from some who live along the stately avenue. This was the third attempt in thirty years. Previous efforts had failed amidst bitter racial tensions.

The Blackwell Family Tree
Credit Image Courtesy of Virginia Museum of History and Culture

“There’s a lot of really hurtful history involved,” Gray says.  “And when we had our public hearing about it… I had African Americans, older African Americans who live in the area, who were in tears. And they said ‘We never seem to move ahead in the city. We never get what we want.’,”

But this time, they did win. City Council approved the name change in February and this weekend the road signs will change. Soon, the highway signs will too.

“Anyone traveling (interstate) 95, 64, passing through Richmond will see ‘Arthur Ashe Boulevard’ on the sign. So I think it’s an important piece in placemaking,” says Gray.

Arthur Ashe won three Grand Slam titles, Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open.
Credit Wikimedia

This weekend the city is hosting three days of celebration, including a speech from Congressman and Civil Rights leader John Lewis. Other members of the Congressional Black Caucus will also attend and join a panel discussion.

 

More Details: Arthur Ashe Weekend in Richmond

The event is timed to the opening of a new exhibit at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, called ‘Determined: the 400 Year Struggle for Black Equality.’

“It looks at the various ways black people have fought for freedom from oppression and enslavement, for equal justice and equal rights,” says curator Karen Sherry.

The exhibition includes artifacts from Ashe’s history, including a huge 9 by 11 foot family tree. Tucked in a corner is Ashe’s name, his roots traced back to enslaved ancestors.

JoAnne Blackwell, a distant cousin of Ashe’s, donated the family tree to the museum. It had been in her closet.

“Sometimes I would just pull it out and I would just run my hands across the names,” recalls Blackwell. “Ancestors and people that I did not know.”

5,000 of them. To piece together the history, Blackwell’s cousin spent years researching slave ship manifests, wills at rural courthouses, plantation inventories.  

“I just feel that it’s something that every family, especially African American families, something they should have,” Blackwell says. “They should be able to know their history. Because....our history, we lost our history.”

But for this family, that history is unlikely to be lost again, etched in permanent street signs. Councilwoman Kim Gray says that sense of pride is larger than one man or one family.

“I still have women grab me in the supermarket and give me bear hugs,” she says. “And the tears just roll down their face.”

Tears, Gray adds, at having one of Richmond’s main thoroughfares -- through the affluent cultural heart of the city -- named after a black man.

 This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.