Kendal Green has idolized Arthur Ashe Jr. since she picked up a tennis racket at age 7 as a member of the Metro Richmond Tennis Club.
“To me, he became my role model, my spiritual mentor, and someone I wanted to make proud,” Green told members of Richmond City Council on Monday night. “He inspired me to plant my own roots in the game of tennis.”
Now 17, Green is the No. 1 seed on the Henrico High School girls’ tennis team. She was one of about 40 people who asked the council to rename the Boulevard for Ashe, the native Richmonder who died in 1993 at age 49 of complications related to AIDS.
The council voted 8-0-1 to change the name of the street from Boulevard to Arthur Ashe Boulevard, endorsing the plan put forth by 2nd District Councilwoman Kimberly Gray last fall. Councilwoman Reva Trammell abstained.
Gray’s was the third attempt to rename the street for Ashe, the first black man to win Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open. He was barred from playing at the tennis courts on Byrd Park as a child growing up in Richmond. The courts were reserved for white players only.
Ashe was renowned worldwide as a humanitarian and civil rights leader. His likeness was enshrined on Monument Avenue in 1996. An athletic center on the Boulevard also bears his name.
Past attempts to rename the Boulevard in his honor failed in 1993 and 2003. Gray began meeting with Ashe’s relatives last February to pursue the latest attempt. David Harris Jr., Ashe’s nephew, said the city hadn’t done enough to honor his uncle’s legacy.
“This is our opportunity to recognize that racism still does exist however we still coexist and work toward the greater good,” Harris Jr. said.
The council’s decision to honor Ashe a year later came amid public soul-searching over race and progress in Virginia.
Gov. Ralph Northam apologized earlier this month for a photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook page that showed one person in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan garb. The governor first apologized for appearing in the photo, then walked back that admission a day later while admitting to having darkened his face to resemble Michael Jackson in a dance contest the same year. He has resisted calls for his resignation.
Last week, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring apologized for wearing blackface as a part of a costume when he was a University of Virginia student in 1980.
The timing of the vote was not lost on supporters of the idea who were present at Monday’s council meeting, or on Gray. She has pitched the name change as a demonstration of the progress the city has made toward racial reconciliation.
On Monday, Gray said a vote in support of renaming the street for Ashe would show “the Richmond of today is not represented by the tawdry and buffoonish behavior and explanations we have witnessed over the last 10 days.”
Supporters of the plan said honoring an African-American on the busy street was an opportunity for the city to begin counterbalancing the Confederate iconography that stands on Monument Avenue. The statues of Confederate leaders are viewed by some as enduring symbols of racism and white supremacy.
“Given the events of the last week, I feel like there’s no better time, no better tribute, no better symbol than Arthur Ashe Boulevard intersecting Monument Avenue,” said Alyse Marshall-Auernheimer.
City officials have estimated road and highway signage bearing the new name could cost about $330,000. That sum would be split among the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Richmond Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the city, officials have said.
About a dozen people spoke in opposition to the plan at Monday’s council meeting, among them the president of the Museum District Association. Several requested that the council defer the matter to the city’s History and Culture Commission for further study. The 13-member commission has not yet been appointed.
“It’s not been properly vetted,” said Christopher Small, who has lived on the Boulevard for 27 years.
Gray objected, saying she had requested a three-month delay on the matter last fall to hold meetings with civic associations along the strip and residents who opposed the plan.
Gray’s proposal ran afoul of the other two representatives of the Boulevard: 1st District Councilman Andreas Addison and 5th District Councilman Parker Agelasto. Each voted in favor of it, but said the plan didn’t follow the city’s rules for changing a street name.
“I hear from residents on the Boulevard that they feel this hasn’t been a fair process,” Agelasto said.
Council members said they wanted to take further steps to honor Ashe, including his efforts to fight for social justice around the world.
“It can’t stop at a street sign,” said Councilman Michael Jones, who represents the 9th District.
Gray said she hopes to hold a formal celebration on Arthur Ashe Boulevard in June to mark the name change.