Arthur Ashe: A Civil Right Activist Off The Court

NPR's summer road trip series, "Honey Stop the Car!" pulls over in Richmond, Va., where a statue of tennis great Arthur Ashe stands in an unlikely place. It's among statues of major figures from the Confederacy.

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SCOTT SIMON, host: This morning, we bring you the final installment of Honey, Stop the Car! our summer road trip to monuments that honor local heroes.

Now, with U.S. Open Tennis finals on tap this weekend, it's a fine time to visit a statue of Arthur Ashe. The tennis champion and civil rights activist grew up in Richmond, Virginia.

And NPR's Allison Keyes found his statue there in a most unlikely spot.

(SOUNDBITE OF A MOTORWAY)

ALLISON KEYES: If you drive along Richmond Virginia's Monument Avenue, you pass an impressive array of memorials, all honoring sons of the Confederacy. But at the end of the street's historic district stands a bronze statue of Arthur Ashe.

Mayor DWIGHT JONES: It got kind of raw.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEYES: Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones was in Virginia's general assembly in 1996, as controversy swirled over whether the statue of a black man belonged on this grand tree-lined avenue.

JONES: There were many people who thought the Arthur Ashe Monument defiled the memory of the Confederate icons that are on one of the most beautiful avenues in America. And then there were others who thought that Arthur Ashe should not be put on Monument Avenue because he was too good to be put on the avenue with the Confederate soldiers.

KEYES: Arthur Ashe grew up in segregated Richmond and was denied permission to play on the city's whites-only tennis courts. He played at a park for blacks and later became the first African-American man to win the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. He died of AIDS in 1993 after he contracted the disease during heart surgery.

Mayor Jones says the monument shows people Ashe was more than a tennis player.

JONES: Because Arthur Ashe was a strong civil rights advocate and activist, and did a lot of philanthropy. And so I think the monument does justice to the multi-dimension life of Arthur Ashe.

KEYES: Now, in 2011, the mayor says the monument has melded into the city's normal life. And he says Richmond is in a good place as it celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and gives the history of both sides.

JONES: I think that's what was missing at that particular time, was the notion that it can only be my story, not your story. But I think that real healing takes place when everybody gets a chance to tell their story.

KEYES: The mayor says he enjoys passing the statue when he walks Monument Avenue for exercise.

JONES: It's nice to see my friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JONES: When I get to the end of my walk, it's nice to see a familiar and warm face.

KEYES: Allison Keyes, NPR News.

SIMON: That's the end of our road trip, Honey Stop the Car! You can see our map and photos at NPR.org.

This is NPR News.

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