RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – Before Arthur Ashe became the only black man in history to win singles titles at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, he was forced to practice on racially segregated tennis courts in Richmond, Virginia, where thousands gathered Saturday for the formal renaming of a thoroughfare in the athlete’s honor.
At the commemoration of the newly named Arthur Ashe Boulevard, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said the city is “changing its future and triumphing over its past,” but standing in the shadows of the towering statues of Confederate Civil War leaders on Monument Avenue, which intersects with Ashe’s road, it is clear that the former capital of the Confederacy is still grappling with its racist history.
Richmond was home to one of the largest slave-trading ports and markets in the country, and after the end of slavery in the U.S., it remained deeply segregated. “Whites Only” signs littered the city, where racist epithets were spewed at those who dared to stage lunch counter protests. Those signs were removed and sitting down for a midday meal in the city is no longer a radical action, but thanks to state law, monuments to the Confederacy remain.
“Arthur Ashe already has a statue on Monument Avenue and he is the only champion on that block,” Stoney said Saturday to a roar of applause from those who gathered for the naming ceremony.
Erected in 1993, a bronze statue of Ashe is the only monument to a non-Confederate figure on the famous, scenic avenue in the center of the city. It took a prolonged effort to get Ashe’s statue built; State law keeps the statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and other icons of the Confederacy from being torn down.
A law enacted in 1904 allows localities to erect “monuments or memorials for any war or conflict, or for any engagement of such war or conflict,” and it forbids any authorities or citizens to “disturb or interfere with any monuments or memorials so erected.”
The law was updated in the late 1990s to specifically include cities as authorities prohibited from removing the memorials, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying.
Charlottesville, Virginia has made attempts to remove a tribute to Lee in Market Street Park – known as Lee Park until 2017 – but those efforts were thwarted by state courts that sided with heritage groups and found that the statue was protected under the war monuments law.
The central Virginia city, which is home to the University of Virginia, commissioned the statue in 1917 before dedicating it in 1924. Historians characterize these Jim Crow-era Confederate memorial dedications as efforts to lionize generals and intimidate black residents.
The effort to remove the statue spurred white supremecists’ march through the park, where they carried tiki torches and chanted Nazi slogans in May 2017, and it was part of the impetus for the now infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, which left one counter-protester dead and several others injured.
Sally Hudson, recently elected to the Virginia House of Delegates to represent the 57th House District, which encompasses Charlottesville, said the tragic turn-of-events that day has “elevated critical public debates about structural racism.”
“They aren’t war monuments, they are Jim Crow memorials,” Hudson added.
She said she saw local attitudes toward the monument change after the Unite the Right event, and she plans to follow in the footsteps of her predecessor – recently retired Delegate Dave Toscano – and support legislation that would change the war monuments law to allow cities to remove them.
Toscano pushed for years to change the monuments law, but such bills have failed to make it through Republican-controlled subcommittees.
Attempts to alter the law may finally gain some traction in the 2020 legislative session, thanks to the so-called “blue wave,” which has given progressives aiming to change the law more representation.
Steven Farnsworth, director of the University of Mary Washington’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies, said that if Democrats take control of the state government in the next election, there is a good chance a bill to alter the monuments law gets a full hearing in the General Assembly.
“Some sort of local option seems like a potential policy outcome, as the best way to make urban voters happy is to let them do what they want and the best way to make rural voters happy is to let them do what they want,” Farnsworth said. “Of course some Democrats would want to go farther than a local option law, but the party has to take control of both chambers of the legislature first.”
Given the choice to remove the Confederate memorials, Virginia cities may decline to do so. Richmond’s city council has failed twice to pass a resolution in support of rolling back the monuments law.
Hudson, who will bring a bill to Richmond when the session begins to attempt to alter the law, is ready for a fight.
“The topography forces you to look up and revere Lee,” Hudson said.
“It’s like having this ghost haunt the park,” she added. “For us to reclaim that space as truly public and inclusive … it’s got to be removed.”