A volunteer tennis instructor lobbed a neon ball over a miniature net to 5-year-old Jaianna Woods.
“Nice and easy,” said the volunteer.
Woods swung and missed, but got back in line for the free tennis lessons, commemorating a new Richmond mural dedicated to Arthur Ashe, the late tennis champion and humanitarian who was a native of the city.
“I like playing (tennis),” Jaianna said shyly, holding her racket close to her chest.
The free lessons were open to everyone — all colors, unlike when Ashe was Jaianna’s age.
The lessons were part of the buildup to unveiling the mural painted in the pedestrian tunnel connecting Richmond’s formerly segregated Battery Park tennis courts to the basketball courts on Wednesday evening, two days after what would have been Ashe’s 74th birthday.
“As you walk through, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and I was like, ‘This is like Arthur Ashe’s life,’” said Sir James Thornhill, an organizer of the effort through the U.N.I.T.Y. Street Project. “When you get in there it’s like the spirit of Arthur Ashe lives inside that tunnel.”
The U.N.I.T.Y. Street Project led the fundraising efforts and artistic manpower for the mural for over a year to bring the project to fruition.
Overall, five local artists participate in the U.N.I.T.Y. program to design street art in Richmond. The project’s name stands for Upholding, Networking and Inspiring Togetherness in celebration of Yesterday.
In 2016, the artists created five murals in historic Jackson Ward, each aiming to embed the changing neighborhood’s African-American legacy through art.
“We wanted to come to Battery Park because the tunnel was such an eyesore and it was honestly the perfect formula for what U.N.I.T.Y. Street stands for,” said Hamilton Glass, one of the five U.N.I.T.Y. artists. “Doing projects in communities where we can highlight the history of the community.”
Thornhill, who’s from Jackson Ward, added: “The city’s changing, the world is changing, and unfortunately we are forgetting some of the heroes and she-roes that came through the area.”
Jaianna’s grandmother Karen Payne-Woods watched her granddaughter practice her swing and play for prizes. She said she used to live in the neighborhood and play in the park with Ashe’s cousin when it desegregated.
“We used to play tennis and then go to the pool and then they had free lunch for us,” she recalled. “I hope they bring that back.”
Cynthia Smith, a longtime resident of Moss Side Avenue, said the neighborhood has gone through phases. Three generations of her family — her parents, herself and then her daughter — have lived in the same house, and have noticed how the neighborhood’s demographic continues to change.
Within the past decade, the crime in the area has left, she said, and she’s happy to see the park’s revitalization.
“I’m just glad that we’re not forgotten,” Smith said of the mural.
More than 200 people appeared for the unveiling and ceremonies.
“We unified a whole area,” Thornhill said, “and when public art can do that, we’ve made our mark.”
In planning the mural and cleaning up the park, Glass said U.N.I.T.Y. collaborated with corporate partners, the Battery Park Association and the Richmond Tennis Association.
“It was definitely tough, getting people to believe in the vision,” Glass said. “But it happened. The more partners that came on board, the easier it got.”
Each project requires a “spark” to happen, Glass said.
Looking forward, Glass said U.N.I.T.Y. is working on a project for Girls for a Change. He said that it “will give a voice for the black girls here in Richmond.”
But for now, Thornhill said, “it was Arthur Ashe’s time.”
At the entrance to the tunnel, children who use the Battery Park tennis courts will be greeted by a painted Ashe quote: “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”