While Arthur Ashe remains one of the greatest stars on the planet, a man with a worldwide reputation on the tennis court, it is his commitment to social justice that is his true legacy. He lived with purpose, grace and generosity in the face of forces that were bigger than him — bigger than any of us.
Racism today takes a different form than it did in my uncle’s day. When he was a rising tennis star, we lived in an overtly segregated society. For instance, he was not allowed to play at the courts at Byrd Park because of the color of his skin. Segregation was out in the open, on bathroom signs and in public parks. But as I’ve heard from the older generation, there also were unspoken social codes that made living in the world as a person of color fraught with danger. One gentleman recently told me how black people always had to be sure to keep their receipts when they purchased goods so that no one could accuse them of shoplifting.
What a shock it is to reflect on what day-to-day life was like in recent history — in our living history.
In the months since the announcement of the Boulevard renaming, many older members of the black community have told me they are waiting to see what my generation would do to further racial progress. That’s been the biggest surprise to me about this whole process. When we first set out to rename the Boulevard, I thought of the Arthur Ashe Center next to the Diamond, how the building is in need of repair. I thought about how Richmond’s youth deserve a model for greatness, and how tennis could be a catalyst for excelling in life.
I was looking forward, not backward. But over the past several months, I’ve looked both forward and backward, and the irony isn’t lost on me that the street now bearing my uncle’s name butts up against the same park where he was not allowed to play.
The Arthur Ashe Boulevard unveiling ceremony will be held at the Virginia Historical Society (VHS). The renaming coincides with the VHS’s commemoration of the 400th anniversary of bringing the first slaves to Virginia. It would be nice to say this story is total history, something school children study to remember where we’ve been, but we still have work to do. We might not have the same signs of segregation as the world my uncle grew up in, and I might not have to guard my receipts when I walk out of a store, but unspoken social codes still exist, as any American of color knows or learns.
The 400-year legacy of slavery is still with us: in the way the interstates have sectioned off our city, in the way voting districts are gerrymandered across the country, in the way urban school districts are overcrowded and underserved, and in the way people of color have to take extra care during traffic stops.
These are structural issues in our society, yet this is not the sum of America. We live in a great country, one full of opportunity, where a black man in Richmond can rise up to become one of the biggest stars on the planet, and where his hometown can recognize this legacy with pride and come together as one.
It is my hope that the Arthur Ashe Boulevard not only celebrates a man great in tennis and in life, but is another step in promoting his mission of social justice. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants like my uncle today, and I hope schoolchildren will learn about him and find a model for greatness tomorrow.
David Harris is the late Arthur Ashe’s nephew and a principal member of the Arthur Ashe Boulevard Initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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