ARTHUR ASHE BOULEVARD….it’s time.
Richmond Times Dispatch’s LIVING, Section D: Commemorating Tennis Legend…reunited my attention to the idea of renaming Richmond’s Boulevard.
There was far more to this Richmonder that the fact that over 40 years ago, he won the tennis championship at Wimbledon.
Some years back the Richmond Times Dispatch described Arthur Ashe editorially: “He earned eternal membership in the aristocracy of merit”. For me, it’s the “merit” business that marks his place of honor in Richmond culture. He carried wisdom with “capacity of judging rightly in matters relating to life and conduct”.
One can find it in “Days of Grace”, a life-reflecting autobiography, revealing this man for who he was – what he became. Bypassing his tennis celebrity, I witnessed, in later life, his empowerment of local student achievement by reconciling the almost irreconcilable. His behavioral model: pure integrity, and self-worth.
“Of all my possessions, my reputation means the most to me,” he wrote.
He attempted to live up to rules set by his disciplinarian father, Arthur Ashe, Sr. “Don’t do anything you couldn’t tell your mother about,” dad would chide. Amid the perceived quaintness, hamstrung with an ever coarsening culture, Ashe didn’t flinch – his behavioral code remained rock-strong.
He was forthright about his liberalism….the activist endorsement of abortion rights; his marching in protest movements against South African apartheid, and near-worship of Nelson Mandela. Ashe readily traced black American challenges to slavery and discrimination – but then quickly admonishes: “this history of oppression not be used as excuse for antisocial behavior, black chauvinism or bogus appeals to racial solidarity.”
“Days of Grace” revealed the key. Growing up black in Jim Crow Virginia, barred from playing tennis in segregated public parks, Ashe improvised. Learning to play from Ron Charity at age seven, and then from Dr. Robert “Whirlwind” Johnson at tennis camp in Lynchburg, he plunged into poised citizenship.
Receiving a UCLA tennis scholarship, after graduating from the segregated Maggie Walker, this solemn-eyed adolescent blended his career with a growing personal dignity. Ashe catapulted into national celebrity with tennis achievements (818 wins, 260 losses) until exhaustion indicated a pre-disposition to heart disease in 1979. This Richmond champion endured the early era of open-heart surgery, with abiding strength and faith.
Thirty-three years later it would be my turn.
For Ashe, a tainted blood transfusion intervened, passing on the AIDS virus; this would hound him into an early death sentence, with bitterness purged. Ashe was five years my junior, so any connection was remote.
As a public classroom teacher, I met him twice – for purposes of honoring top high school academic achievers, public and private – at Holiday Inn, 3200 on Broad Street. Obviously ill, ever resilient, Ashe was buoyed by rapturous teen audiences; courageously, shaking hands, autographing automatically, and enduring the energy of adolescent honorees – his mentoring reigned.
Personally, I forced myself to think about an old Frederick Douglass’ quote in the 19th century concerning “well-meaning “whites. Columnist Thomas Sowell assures that Douglass said, “Everybody has asked me the question, ‘what shall we do with the Negro?’ I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us.” That was over a century before the “Great Society”.
“Days of Grace” was required reading in my Advanced Placement U.S. History classes at Mills Godwin High School. Frankly, it ought to be required reading in the company of “To Kill a Mocking Bird,” and The Great Gatsby; this work alone dictates the validity to rename Richmond’s Boulevard: ARTHUR ASHE BOULEVARD.
Passing frequently by his Monument Ave. statue, I am reminded that Ashe was a godsend to Richmonders. His qualities for soul-enhancement and self-examination continue to be essential for his home community. Our culture is desperately hungry for them.