Arthur Ashe Boulevard

David O. Harris, Jr., Arthur Ashe’s nephew, watched Richmond Councilwoman Kimberly B. Gray unveil one of the Arthur Ashe Boulevard signs during a renaming the boulevard ceremony at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture on June 22.

On June 23, The New York Times Sports Sunday section ran a cover story on the great Arthur Ashe and the renaming of the Boulevard. It was full of observations about “the former capital of the Confederacy,” about which no news story from Richmond is complete without mentioning. The narrative — as always seems to be the case — was about the city’s many shortcomings, not the redemptive and happy story at hand.

Yes, Confederate monuments continue to line Monument Avenue. I would not disagree with removing them from city’s most prominent avenue or placing them in a museum. I am disappointed that a decision on this issue is proceeding at such a sluggish pace. The same inability to move forward was one reason the renaming of the boulevard in honor of a favorite son was long overdue.

But I have tired of persistent stereotypes that undercut the many advances that have been made in Richmond and Virginia, advances that belie how far both have come.

It isn’t only a Times writer who has forgotten that Virginia was the nation’s first state to officially apologize for slavery when the General Assembly, without a dissenting vote, expressed profound regret for our nation’s original sin. Perhaps a reminder is in order, too, for Virginians and Richmond area-residents that we were also first to elect an African American governor: L. Douglas Wilder, in 1989. (Only one other state — Massachusetts — has followed suit.)

Virginia was the first state to pay reparations to African Americans. The General Assembly in 2004, in a down economy, approved the Brown Scholarship fund for the victims of Massive Resistance and their families. It was a degree of atonement for what admittedly was the shameful five-year shutdown of public schools in Prince Edward County between 1959 and 1964. If one thinks such pronouncements are merely symbolic, keep in mind that Prince Edward County has voted blue in the past three presidential elections, as has the commonwealth.

Today, Richmond is home to other statues of people not of European heritage, and that number is growing. One is to Maggie Walker located on Broad Street. Another is of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in Historic Jackson Ward. In Capitol Square, there is a Civil Rights Monument that features Barbara Rose Johns and her fellow students, whose court case was joined with the landmark Brown v. Board of Education in the fight against racially segregated schools. A newly renovated state office building has been renamed in Johns’ honor.

There is a monument located near Richmond’s downtown convention center and a plaque in Capitol Square to legal giant and civil rights attorney Oliver Hill. In October, the Virginia Women’s Monument to the commonwealth’s more famous women — including several women of color — will be formally dedicated, also in Capitol Square.

In May, our new American Civil War Museum opened, a museum that gives equal attention to military history and the effects on and contributions of the enslaved and women. CEO Christy Coleman, an African American woman named by Time magazine last year as one of 31 People Changing the South, led the effort.

And now we honor Arthur Ashe, as much for his humanitarian deeds as his historic career in professional tennis. Arthur Ashe Boulevard travels from tennis courts closed to African Americans of his youth, past the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts that is greatly expanding its collection of African art and has recently purchased a huge sculpture by Kahinde Wiley that will be placed on its front lawn.

The boulevard continues past the recently renamed Virginia Museum of History and Culture currently featuring an exhibit entitled “Determined: The 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality.”

But it is “very Richmond” for many of us to focus on the negative. Even when the news is good, when we honor a great man, when the city has had a great day, we tend to say: Well, remember that bad thing we did. Could this habit on our part be encouraging to people living elsewhere — columnists, say? — to shake their heads?

I know we deserve the reminders. Virginia’s — and Richmond’s — racial history is not good. But attempts at atonement are being made, and it seems that the commonwealth has done as much as or more than most of its Confederate cohorts. A low bar, perhaps, but it would be nice if the story — just once — could acknowledge the gains we have made without devolving to “old capital of the Confederacy” references.

We remember the negative, all right. Virginians were not born yesterday, and there is still much to accomplish to achieve true racial equality. We should all work toward that. We should also recognize that occasionally Richmond does something trailblazing, and right. As with the commonwealth, sometimes we’re first at doing it.

Karen Owen of Richmond is the former Viewpoints editor of The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg and former publisher of literary fiction at Van Neste Books. Contact her at karenvnowen@gmail.com.

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