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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.