RICHMOND, Va. — I wasn’t ready.
As a reporter, I had seen death at the hands of street gangs, and life in the hands of a surgeon placing a new heart into the chest of a 10-month-old boy.
But nothing had ever made me feel like this.
My arms grew hot, prickly. My legs would not move. My stomach cramped. Was I going to throw up? I felt sweat on my forehead. Tears pooled in my eyes. They were tears of sadness, then despair, finally anger.
I had tried to prepare myself: “It’s only going to be a statue.”
But when I looked up and saw it, bronze and nearly three stories tall — Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson sternly astride his horse in the middle of a Richmond intersection — I lost my moorings.
This is the Civil War capital of the Confederacy. I count slaves among my ancestors. This also is the birthplace and childhood home of my idol, Arthur Ashe, the first African-American on the United States Davis Cup team and, so far, the only black man to win the singles championship at Wimbledon, at the Australian Open and at the United States Open.
My son, Ashe, 8, is named after him.
Early this year, amid opposition and racial tension, the Richmond City Council decided to rename Boulevard, one of its most historic thoroughfares, after Arthur Ashe. When new street signs are unveiled on Saturday, it will become Arthur Ashe Boulevard. It will slice across Monument Avenue, known for its outsized statues of Confederate generals, at the very intersection where I was staring into the face of Stonewall Jackson.
Arthur Ashe Boulevard will cut through an avenue of ghosts, not all of them friendly. Richmond is checkered with bronze and stone tributes to the Lost Cause. At a time when this country is at a crossroads, this will become an intersection where the sordid, sinful and divisive past meets an inclusive, hopeful vision for the future. Symbolically, it will ask the question: Which way are we going?
Which way, Richmond? Which way, America?
“Hello, Kurt,” he said on the phone. “This is Arthur Ashe.”
He was genial and calm. His voice was gravelly. It was 1983, and I was in high school. After watching Ashe win at Wimbledon eight years earlier, I had decided that I could dream his dream. I, too, could be a tennis champion.
By the time I was 16, I was pretty good — hardly a prodigy, but I was the top high school tennis player in Seattle; among the best in the Pacific Northwest, and one of the ranking black players of my age in the country.
Ashe was reaching out. He was calling to say that he wanted to help me pay for a year at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida. In a way, it was no surprise. He was always there for others.
After the academy, I won a tennis scholarship at U.C. Berkeley, became the first African-American captain on its men’s team and helped lead the Golden Bears to an indoor national title. I played in the tennis minor leagues and was world-ranked in singles and doubles.
But I was no Arthur Ashe. I finally went into journalism, where I have tried to honor his legacy. His solicitude has prompted me to write often about the oppressed, the overlooked and especially those who needed help.
There is another reason, though, that I came to Richmond.
I’m biracial. My late father was a tall, dark-skinned African-American. Some of his ancestors were slaves in Virginia. My mother, 87, is a white woman whose forebears were English and Irish immigrants. Her paternal great-grandfather fought in a Union Army regiment that waged fierce battles near Richmond during the Civil War.
Growing up as I did, with a family like mine, tucked away in the far Northwest, the South was a boogeyman. My parents never traveled there. They feared they might be killed, especially in the 1950s, when they became one of the first biracial couples to marry in Oregon.
In 1964, three young civil rights workers, two white and one black, were murdered near Philadelphia, Miss. Their bodies were buried in a dirt dam. A movie about the killings gave me nightmares for years. So did documentaries about the Ku Klux Klan. When I played tennis in the South, my family always warned: “Be careful. Mind yourself.”
I needed to put away my fears. Perhaps because it was verboten, the South fascinated me. Over the years, I have traveled extensively through most of it, exploring its culture, its charms and nuances and stark divides. As an athlete, some of my best moments on the court happened there.
In the early 1990s, a black, dreadlocked doubles partner and I marched to the finals of a professional tournament at an exclusive, all-white country club near Birmingham, Ala., the kind of club that wouldn’t have us as members.
We turned heads and raised eyebrows. It was the closest I ever came as a player to feeling some of the sting that Ashe had experienced growing up.
But despite my travels, I had never been to Richmond, where he is buried in a plot surrounded by a low iron fence on the outskirts of town.
It was Harris who started a recent movement to honor his uncle with a newly named boulevard.
“It had been tugging at me for a long while,” Harris said.
Last year, in the fallout of the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., he came up with a plan.
Not long after the rally, white supremacists gathered at a four-story statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue. Harris wanted to counter their narrative. “I wanted to come up with a way to show there was another side to this place,” he said. “A far different side. There’s a lot of good happening here.”
Richmond is enjoying a renaissance. At least 30,000 new residents have arrived since 2000. Many are millennials from beyond the South, attracted by the midsize city’s farm-to-table cuisine, craft breweries, art districts, inexpensive living and down-home vibe.
Nonetheless, painful memories are stitched into the fabric of the city. Harris and I drove past shrines to generals who fought for slavery, as well as a former slave jail, slave burial grounds and a market where thousands of African-Americans were sold.
The city is trying to figure out what to do with its Confederate memorials, built around the turn of the 20th century, in part to intimidate black residents. Should the statues be destroyed? Put in a museum? Kept in place, but with added displays that provide context?
Indeed, in 1996, Richmond erected a statue of Arthur Ashe on Monument Avenue. But in size and prominence, it hardly matches the tributes to Confederates on the same street. Neo-Nazis showed up to protest its dedication.
Harris steered his truck to Byrd Park, a 200-acre expanse including well-kept public tennis courts that figure prominently in Ashe’s story. In the late 1960s, he played a Davis Cup match there. But in the Jim Crow days of his youth, he was barred.
Last year, Harris decided to renew old efforts to rename Boulevard.
Call it Arthur Ashe Boulevard.
Previous struggles to do so had been quashed during the 1990s and in 2003.
Harris approached Kimberly Gray, an African-American councilwoman whose district straddles Boulevard. “This change would seem like a slam dunk, right?” she said, when we met. “But this is Richmond.”
Immediately, a group of white residents pushed back. They used old arguments: Changing the name to Arthur Ashe Boulevard would be too inconvenient, cost too much — what about the price of new stationery? Some said City Hall was moving too fast; others complained change was occurring without enough citizen input.
Opponents of the name change said their protest had nothing to do with race. They seemed sincere. Also tone-deaf. This is the South, which is still suffering from racial wounds.
When I spoke with African-Americans — and several white residents — they were skeptical of the opposition. Levar Stoney, Richmond’s black mayor, said it directly: “‘No, no, no, go find another other space!’ That is kind of Richmond’s history. ‘No, no, not here. Go somewhere else.’ You can’t continue to kick the can down the road if we are going to be an inclusive community.”
For a while, Gray was not sure if she had enough votes.
Then came February, with scandals at the Virginia state house: a racist photo in the governor’s college yearbook, the lieutenant governor accused of sexual assault, a picture of the attorney general as a young man in blackface.
The scandals, coming on the heels of the conflict in Charlottesville, “actually helped push this along,” Gray told me. “It was like, ‘In Richmond, what is the council going to do now?’ The eyes of the world were upon us.”
At a packed City Hall meeting
the proponents prevailed. Eight of the nine council members voted for the name change. One abstained.
“Relief,” Harris recalled feeling. “It was like, ‘Did that really just happen?’ We went from being a close vote to nearly unanimous. Even some of our critics are onboard now. We’re showing what change can look like.”
When the new Arthur Ashe Boulevard street signs are unveiled Saturday, thousands are expected to attend a celebration at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. Representative John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights icon, will give the keynote address.
On the last day of my visit, Harris drove me back to Byrd Park, where Ashe had been barred from playing tennis.
Older men, a group of women and some children, a rainbow of races, were hitting tennis balls.
Harris and I joined them. When we finished, I walked slowly off the court. I looked beyond a small, grass-covered hill toward the boulevard that will now bear Arthur Ashe’s name. I felt tears again.
This time they were tears of happiness.
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