A proposal to rename the Boulevard for Arthur Ashe Jr., facing pushback from residents of the street, is heading for a divided vote Monday at Richmond City Council.
Councilwoman Kimberly Gray, who represents part of the Boulevard, proposed renaming the street during the summer. Hers is the third attempt to christen the street for Ashe, the first black tennis player to win Wimbledon, an honor she has said could help move Richmond toward racial reconciliation.
“This is a city that has not always treated all of us with the respect and equality that we deserve,” Gray said. “We need to consider who we are and what kind of city we want to be moving forward.”
But where Gray sees a moment for healing, some who live and work along the Boulevard see a railroading. They at first floated an honorary designation for the street, which wouldn’t require address changes, but now some residents want the city’s nascent History and Culture Commission to study the matter.
“If it turns out at the end that this is what the commission deems — changing the name of the Boulevard — we’re fine with that,” said Sue Patow, a Boulevard resident. “But we’ll know there was a democratic process here and the entire community came together and had the opportunity to have their voices heard.”
Some council members agree that the vote should wait until a panel Mayor Levar Stoney proposed last year to guide implementation of the recommendations from his Monument Avenue Commission weighs in. Its 13 members, who will be tasked with studying matters of historical significance and advising the city administration, have not yet been appointed.
Council members polled ahead of the vote, amid national outrage after two of the state’s top elected officials admitted to having worn blackface, all agreed Ashe should be honored, but weren’t sure how best to do so.
Andreas Addison, the 1st District councilman, said he would favor the commission exploring other ways the city can honor Ashe after hearing objections to the current proposal from his constituents on the Boulevard. Some residents want the council to consider other landmarks or roads, such as the Downtown Expressway, as a part of a broader discussion about commemorating Ashe, he said.
“That’s kind of what my people have been sharing and voicing in their concerns — they feel this has been labeled the only way to do this,” he said.
Parker Agelasto, the 5th District councilman who also represents part of the street, echoed Addison.
“I’m not at all happy that there seems to be a tear between people in our city about this,” he said. “I don’t think that’s what anybody wants when we talk about Arthur Ashe and commemorating his legacy.”
Gray said she sees no reason to push back a vote on the matter.
“It shouldn’t be controversial. It shouldn’t be this hard,” Gray said of the renaming, which also has the support of council Vice President Chris Hilbert and 6th District Councilwoman Ellen Robertson.
Ashe was barred from playing tennis on the courts at Byrd Park as a child because he was African-American. He went on to become the first black tennis player to win Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open. He died in February 1993 from AIDS, and his likeness was enshrined in bronze on Monument Avenue in 1996. An athletic center on the Boulevard also bears his name.
The vote is scheduled to come 10 days after Gov. Ralph Northam apologized 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.
On Wednesday, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring apologized for wearing blackface as a part of a costume when he was a University of Virginia student in 1981.
Hilbert, who represents the majority African-American 3rd District on the City Council, predicted that if the council rejects the proposal, the decision will invite backlash and be viewed as “racially motivated.”
“I can’t see where anyone would vote against this and bring more negative attention from the national news media on to our city,” Hilbert said. “It would send exactly the wrong message, regardless of your reason for voting against it. It’s going to be seen as just that. We don’t need that.”
Councilwoman Reva Trammell, a close ally of Gray, said she plans to vote against the proposal because it would cost too much.
City officials have estimated new road and highway signage could cost about $330,000. That sum would be split among the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Richmond Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the city.
Two council members — Kristen Larson and Michael Jones — said they were undecided heading into Monday’s vote.
“One piece of me says, ‘Hey, that’s great.’ The other piece of me says, ‘Live out his values,’ which means it goes a whole lot deeper than naming a street after him,’” Jones said.
Council President Cynthia Newbille did not respond to a request for comment for this story.