Thousands gathered Saturday to celebrate the formal renaming of Arthur Ashe Boulevard, an occasion leaders hailed as a long overdue step toward honoring Richmond’s native son and embracing African American history.

“This is truly a spectacular and momentous day,” said David Harris Jr., Ashe’s nephew. Harris led the successful push to rename the road formerly known as the Boulevard for his uncle, who overcame prejudice to become a legend in a sport dominated by white athletes. Off the tennis court, Ashe was renowned for his humanitarian work and anti-apartheid activism.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 people, including dozens of Ashe’s relatives, gathered on the lawn of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture to witness the unveiling of new Arthur Ashe Boulevard signs that will now mark the busy thoroughfare.

Local, state and congressional officials, among them U.S. Rep. John Lewis from Georgia, sung Ashe’s praises and marked the occasion as a significant milestone in Virginia’s commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in 1619.

“Think about Arthur Ashe, what he did, the contribution he made, coming out of this city, out of this state, out of this country,” said Lewis, the celebration’s keynote speaker.

Ashe was born in Richmond in 1943. He died in 1993 at 49 of complications related to AIDS after contracting HIV through a blood transfusion during surgery. He is the only African American man to win Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Australian Open tennis titles.

In 1996, the city unveiled a bronze statue of Ashe at the intersection of Monument Avenue and Roseneath Road, making him the first — and to date, only — African American honored on Richmond’s most famous street.

In remarks Saturday, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said Ashe was “the only true champion” on the street that features prominent iconography of Confederate leaders from the Civil War. The newly named Arthur Ashe Boulevard intersects Monument Avenue in what Stoney said symbolized progress the city is making toward becoming a more inclusive and accepting community.

“By naming this boulevard after Arthur Ashe, we’re once again parting with our darker past and embracing our brighter future,” Stoney said.

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia called the new name “an act of healing” of which all of Richmond could be proud.

Ashe grew up in a different Richmond, one where racial divisions were starker and enforced unceasingly.

As a child, he was barred from practicing at the tennis courts at Byrd Park, located at the south end of the Boulevard, because of the color of his skin. Instead, he practiced at segregated courts on the North Side, honing abilities that would launch him to the pinnacle of a sport no African American had reached before.

Once a professional, Ashe returned to the Byrd Park courts as the first black member of the U.S. Davis Cup team and led them to victory in 1968.

Fifty years after the triumph, the Richmond City Council voted this past February to rename the Boulevard. It was the third effort to rename the street for Ashe; previous attempts failed in 1993 and 2003.

Councilwoman Kim Gray proposed the name change this time, calling it an opportunity to demonstrate the progress Richmond has made toward racial reconciliation. Gray, whose district includes a portion of the street, met with civic associations, residents and business owners in the area to rally support for the initiative.

Some were wary. A group of Boulevard residents made a last-ditch effort to delay a decision on the matter, saying there hadn’t been enough input. Some suggested renaming another street in Ashe’s honor, not theirs.

Heading into the vote, it remained an open question whether the nine-member council would endorse the idea. But after an overwhelming show of support at a public hearing before the vote, it did.

Fighting back tears after unveiling the new street signs Saturday, Gray said she would remember the day for the show of unity she saw on display.

Throngs of people climbed the museum’s steps after the ceremony concluded to get a closer look at the new signs. Some ventured inside to see an exhibit that opened Saturday called “Determined: The 400-year Struggle For Black Equality.” The museum also unveiled a special virtual reality exhibit featuring archival footage from Ashe’s famed 1968 U.S. Open victory.

Standing amid the scene, Gray said, “I’m just overwhelmed with emotion.”

mrobinson@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6734

Twitter: @__MarkRobinson

Mark Robinson covers Richmond City Hall.

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