Ashe statue stirs Southern passions

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The Independent Online
Washington - Few Wimbledon champions have been as refined and understated as Arthur Ashe, but faced with the unseemly goings on in his home town today he would probably have done a Jeff Tarango and stormed off in disgust, writes John Carlin.

The city council of Richmond, Virginia, finds itself immersed in a heated race row over whether to erect a statue of Ashe, who died in 1993, alongside statues of five Confederate heroes of the Civil War. Richmond was the capital of the Confederate South, which went to war against Abraham Lincoln's Union in defence of slavery.

The city council took a decision last month to erect the statue today, Ashe's birthday. But the date has been postponed following an uproar by local white eminences who argue that it is improper to immortalise a tennis player on Monument Avenue, described by the national parks authority as "the South's grandest commemorative precinct dedicated to the heroes of a lost cause".

Black citizens say it is the height of insensitivity to put up the memorial to Ashe on a street which he himself described in his autobiography as a constant reminder of bitter childhood memories.

Wayne Bird, president of the Richmond chapter of the Heritage Preservation Association, described Monument Avenue as "hallowed ground". To place Ashe's statue there would be to "violate the historic sensibilities of Richmond's Confederate-American population".

To which Henry Richardson, one of the five blacks on the nine-member city council, replied that the city's most famous native son, who died of Aids following a transfusion of HIV-infected blood, deserved his place among Richmond's finest. "Arthur didn't ride a horse, and he didn't shoot a gun. But Arthur Ashe was a hero."

Douglas Wilder, Richmond's first black mayor, told the New York Times that the furore would have so upset Ashe that he would have preferred the entire idea of the statue be scrapped. "He did not lead a life of in-your-face. I think Arthur would say, 'Let me rest in peace'."

But they won't. One plan is to knock Christopher Columbus off his pedestal in a town park and put up a bronze Ashe in his place, which if it were to happen would hand Wimbledon's only black male champion a posthumous victory to rank with his defeat of Jimmy Connors in the men's final of 1975.