Grand Slam: Arthur Ashe Boulevard

Politics, personalities merge in this historic moment honoring late hometown hero

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 6/21/2019, 6 a.m.
Richmond is preparing to pull out all the stops to celebrate native son Arthur Ashe Jr. as it renames one ...
Photos of Richmond tennis star Arthur Ashe Jr. during his 1968 victory at the U.S. Open line the front sidewalk of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture at 428 N. Arthur Ashe Blvd. The installation, featuring rarely seen images of Mr. Ashe by LIFE magazine photographer John Zimmerman, is part of the celebration and dedication of Arthur Ashe Boulevard and will be on view until July 7. The installation was produced for the 2018 U.S. Open commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Mr. Ashe’s historic win. Photo by Regina H. Boone Richmond Free Press

Richmond is preparing to pull out all the stops to celebrate native son Arthur Ashe Jr. as it renames one its major streets in his honor.

Thousands of people from near and far are expected to participate in the main event 11 a.m. Saturday, June 22 — the unveiling of street signs bearing Mr. Ashe’s name along the 2.5-mile thoroughfare that for generations has been known simply as the Boulevard.

However, even this big effort to mark the new Arthur Ashe Boulevard cannot escape the undertow of city and state politics.

For most people, that undertow will go unnoticed as they take part in the big salute at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture to an international hero who was forced to leave segregated Richmond to pursue his sport and then went on to extraordinary achievements in tennis, as an author and as a humanitarian before his death in 1993.

They will hear speeches about Mr. Ashe’s legacy and the importance of this day from numerous people, including civil rights icon and Georgia Congressman John R. Lewis.

But behind the scenes, the undertow is highly visible.

Most obvious is the role of Dominion Energy as the major sponsor of the celebration and associated activities.

It hardly seems coincidental that the company is wrapping itself in this black history moment, given that is under fire for a pipeline development about 90 miles west of Richmond that could disrupt a rural African-American community.

Nor can it escape notice that the celebration is taking place as Dominion’s top executive, Thomas F. Farrell II, seeks to get City Hall to move ahead with a $1.4 billion project to replace the Richmond Coliseum that he and business friends are proposing.

The event also shines a light on the strained relations between Mayor Levar M. Stoney and some members of City Council.

While the city’s program and list of speakers remained under wraps and had not been released by Free Press publication deadline Wednesday night, members of City Council apparently have been excluded from the list of local, state and national officials who are to deliver remarks during the 90-minute unveiling program.

That includes Councilwoman Kim B. Gray, 2nd District, who played a key role in getting the street renamed in Mr. Ashe’s honor.

Ms. Gray, who is known to be miffed, declined comment, except to confirm that she had not been invited to speak.

Mayor Stoney, who appears to be gearing up for a re-election run next year, will be the most visible city official on the program even though his main role in the renaming was to support and co-patron the proposal that Ms. Gray introduced.

The Free Press confirmed that the mayor initially declined to get directly involved when David O. Harris Jr., a contractor and nephew of Mr. Ashe, met with the mayor about his plan to launch a new effort to change the Boulevard’s name.

The mayor, who can introduce legislation, told Mr. Harris to work on the proposal with members of City Council, according to sources and documents.

Since Mr. Ashe’s death, the council had twice rejected renaming the Boulevard for Mr. Ashe.

Ms. Gray, who is seen by some as a potential challenger to Mayor Stoney, took up the issue with Mr. Harris. She met with civic groups in the area, as well as with businesses and top officials at the major museums, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, which both were supportive.

She arranged for a public meeting to get comments and lobbied members of the council after learning that several had objections or wanted other roads to be considered, including the Downtown Expressway.

Ms. Gray persisted, despite a backlash from some residents

Ms. Gray said she went into the Feb. 11 City Council meeting unsure if the measure to rename the street would pass.

It did, on an 8-1 vote.

Now, despite all her work, Ms. Gray appears to be relegated to the audience.

Arthur Ashe celebration schedule

Thursday, June 20

• Arthur Ashe Boulevard Social Justice Forum, 7 to 9 p.m., Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 Arthur Ashe Blvd. Program examines Mr. Ashe’s legacy in social justice.

Friday, June 21

• Arthur Ashe Boulevard Tennis Under the Lights Event & Movies at the Park, 6 to 9 p.m. Byrd Park Tennis Courts. Doubles tennis play for all on the courts, plus a showing of “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part” at 8 p.m.

• Arthur Ashe Boulevard Kick-off Celebration & Bowling Party — 7 p.m. to midnight, River City Roll, 939 Myers St. – Family bowling without charge, 7 to 9 p.m., and live music, 9 p.m. to midnight.

Saturday, June 22

• Arthur Ashe Boulevard Unveiling Ceremony, 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Virginia Museum of History & Culture, 428 Arthur Ashe Blvd.

• Opening of exhibit “Determined: The 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality,” 12:30 to 5 p.m., Virginia Museum of History & Culture, free tour of new exhibition on the black experience in Virginia.

• Arthur Ashe Boulevard Community Celebration, 1 to 5 p.m., Arthur Ashe Jr. Athletic Center, 3001 Arthur Ashe Blvd., community celebration with tennis clinics for youngsters and adults.

• Town Hall Meeting, “State of Black America” discussion hosted by Congressman A. Donald McEachin of Richmond, 2 p.m., Virginia Museum of History & Culture. Keynote speaker: U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. Panelists: Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including chairwoman Rep. Karen Bass of California, Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott of Newport News, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, Rep. Barbara Lee of California and Rep. Steven Horsford of Nevada. Topics ranging from environmental justice to health care and housing to be covered.

• Battery Park Salute to Mr. Ashe, 1 to 5 p.m., Battery Park, Overbrook Road and Hawthorne Avenue, featuring tennis skill games, music and dedication of park tunnel murals featuring Mr. Ashe.

• Arthur Ashe Boulevard After-Party, 8 to11 p.m., The Graduate Richmond, 301 W. Franklin St. No admission charge.

All events are free and open to the public.

Ashe celebration street closures and parking

Richmond Police issued the following traffic advisory for the Arthur Ashe Boulevard dedication ceremony and events:

Streets closing 9 a.m.

Saturday, June 22, reopening at 2 p.m.

· Kensington Avenue between Sheppard and Mulberry streets

· North Arthur Ashe Boulevard (both sides) between Patterson and Hanover avenues

· Colonial Avenue between Kensington and Patterson avenues

· Stuart Avenue between Arthur Ashe Boulevard and Mulberry Street

· Hanover Avenue between Arthur Ashe Boulevard and Mulberry Street

No Parking zones 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Saturday, June 22

Arthur Ashe Boulevard locations

· 400 block of North Arthur Ashe Boulevard (both sides) between Kensington and Stuart avenues

· 500 block of North Arthur Ashe Boulevard (west side only) between Patterson and Kensington avenues

· 2800-2900 block of Kensington Avenue (both sides) between North Arthur Ashe Boulevard and Sheppard Street

No Parking zones 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Saturday, June 22

Battery Park locations

· 2500 block of The Terrace (both sides) between Overbrook and Lancaster roads

· 2500 block of Montrose Avenue (both sides) between The Terrace and Lancaster Road

· 400 block of West Lancaster Road (both sides) between The Terrace and Montrose Avenue

Arthur Ashe Monument locations

· 900 block of Roseneath Road (west side only) between Monument and Wythe avenues