Black­face tur­moil comes amid bid to honor black ten­nis great

Daily Times (Primos, PA) - - NEWS - By Denise Lavoie

RICH­MOND, VA. >> A move­ment to re­name a Rich­mond, Vir­ginia, thor­ough­fare for ground­break­ing black ten­nis player Arthur Ashe Jr. is crest­ing just as the state finds it­self in tur­moil over a black­face scan­dal in­volv­ing the gover­nor and at­tor­ney gen­eral.

The man be­hind the street re­nam­ing says the con­flu­ence of the two un­re­lated de­vel­op­ments in­volv­ing race and his­tory could be­come an op­por­tu­nity to start a con­ver­sa­tion about race at a piv­otal time.

“If we can re­name the Boule­vard after him, it would be a huge cul­tural step for­ward. This is where we can start with rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and we can start talk­ing about the is­sues,” says Ashe’s nephew, David Har­ris Jr.

“It would be an op­por­tu­nity for the City Coun­cil to be lead­ers on this. We know what’s go­ing on down the street at the state Capi­tol. This would be a way for the City Coun­cil to say, ‘We want to show you the way.’”

Ashe’s once-seg­re­gated home­town boasts an ath­letic cen­ter named after him, and a bronze sculp­ture of Ashe sits among Rich­mond’s many Con­fed­er­ate stat­ues. But a pro­posal to re­name a his­toric street for Ashe has been de­feated twice since his death in 1993.

A third pro­posal comes be­fore the City Coun­cil for a vote Mon­day amid the black­face scan­dal.

Lead­ers through­out Vir­ginia’s political struc­ture have called on Gov. Ralph Northam to re­sign after a racist photo on his 1984 med­i­cal school year­book page sur­faced re­cently. Northam apol­o­gized, ini­tially say­ing he ap­peared in a photo show­ing one man in black­face and an­other wear­ing a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Northam did not say which cos­tume he wore. The next day he said he no longer be­lieved he was in the photo, but ac­knowl­edged wear­ing black­face the same year to look like Michael Jack­son in a dance con­test.

Days after Northam’s ad­mis­sion, At­tor­ney Gen­eral Mark Her­ring was forced to ac­knowl­edge that he, too, wore black­face in the 1980s while try­ing to look like a rap­per at a col­lege party.

Mean­while, for all of Rich­mond’s home­town pride in Ashe, re­peated at­tempts to re­name a city street after him have failed. Har­ris ini­tially res­ur­rected the idea of re­nam­ing the street after his un­cle last year.

Called sim­ply “Boule­vard,” it’s a busy 2.4-mile

(3.9-kilo­me­ter) stretch dot­ted with restau­rants, mu­se­ums and stately homes. Modeled after grand Euro­pean boule­vards in the late

19th cen­tury, Boule­vard was des­ig­nated as a state and na­tional his­toric land­mark in 1986.

At one end sits Byrd Park, with ten­nis courts where Ashe was de­nied ac­cess dur­ing his child­hood be­cause of seg­re­ga­tion. The ath­letic cen­ter named for Ashe is also on Boule­vard.

City Coun­cil mem­ber Kim Gray, whose dis­trict cov­ers a por­tion of Boule­vard, has spon­sored the Ashe re­nam­ing or­di­nance.

Some res­i­dents and busi­ness own­ers say they don’t want to change the his­toric name. Oth­ers cite the in­con­ve­nience and ex­pense of of­fi­cially chang­ing their ad­dress, in­clud­ing get­ting new let­ter­head and sig­nage.

Har­ris and Gray say they un­der­stand those con­cerns, but also be­lieve racism may un­der­lie some of the op­po­si­tion.

“I find it hard to be­lieve that peo­ple get that an­gry over sta­tionery,” said Gray, who said she’s re­ceived racist emails over the pro­posal.

Long­time res­i­dents in­sist they have noth­ing but ad­mi­ra­tion for Ashe, but be­lieve there are bet­ter ways to honor him than legally chang­ing the name of their street. A group called the Boule­vard Coali­tion wants the Rich­mond His­tory and Cul­ture Com­mis­sion to hold city­wide com­mu­nity dis­cus­sions about how to honor Ashe and then make a rec­om­men­da­tion to the City Coun­cil.

The con­tro­versy comes at a time when Rich­mond, a one-time cap­i­tal of the Con­fed­er­acy, has been grap­pling with calls to re­move Con­fed­er­ate stat­ues. Rich­mond’s Mon­u­ment Av­enue fea­tures stat­ues of five Con­fed­er­ate fig­ures, in­clud­ing Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jack­son. Ashe’s statue was erected among those rebel icons in 1996, but only after ran­corous de­bate.

Har­ris said re­nam­ing Boule­vard after Ashe would give Rich­mond a chance to shed its past im­age and show it has be­come a pro­gres­sive city.

“We’ve cel­e­brated things that have been as­so­ci­ated with slav­ery for years. Well, let’s cel­e­brate equal­ity, in­clu­sion and di­ver­sity, as op­posed to the slave pic­ture we’ve had in Civil War his­tory,” Har­ris said.

Ashe was the first black player selected to the U.S. Davis Cup team and the only black man to ever win the sin­gles ti­tle at the U.S. Open, Wim­ble­don and the Aus­tralian Open. He was also well-known for pro­mot­ing ed­u­ca­tion and civil rights, op­pos­ing apartheid in South Africa and rais­ing aware­ness about AIDS, the dis­ease that even­tu­ally took his life.

Rich­mond Mayor Le­var Stoney urged the City Coun­cil last month to ap­prove the change, call­ing Ashe “one of Rich­mond’s true cham­pi­ons.”

A 2004 city or­di­nance says street names in­di­cated on city maps for 50 years or longer should only be changed un­der “ex­cep­tional cir­cum­stances.” Gray and Har­ris say they be­lieve nam­ing Boule­vard after Ashe is one of those cir­cum­stances.

But City Coun­cil mem­ber Parker Age­lesto, whose dis­trict cov­ers part of the street, said his con­stituents fa­vor an “hon­orary re­nam­ing” that keeps Boule­vard as the street’s of­fi­cial name.

STEVE HELBER — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In this traf­fic passes by the statue of Con­fed­er­ate Gen­eral Stonewall Jack­son at the in­ter­sec­tion Traf­fic passes by the statue of Con­fed­er­ate Gen­eral Stonewall Jack­son at the in­ter­sec­tion of Mon­u­ment Av­enue and The Boule­vard in Rich­mond, Va. A city coun­cil­woman and oth­ers are at­tempt­ing to get the Boule­vard named after ten­nis star Arthur Ashe.

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