A massive, colorful mural honoring Richmond tennis legend Arthur Ashe near the segregated courts where the young Grand Slam champ learned to play was defaced with racist graffiti Thursday, prompting outcries from the community, mayor, police and artists who made it.
“It’s disheartening,” said Sir James Thornhill, one of the organizers and artists behind the mural at North Side’s Battery Park. “This is an act of vandalism and hatred.”
Ashe’s image was covered in several parts of the mural and tagged with stencils for the Patriot Front, which according to the Southern Poverty Law Center is a white nationalist hate group that broke from Vanguard America in the aftermath of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
“You couldn’t see any of his face. It’s a much deeper, underlying problem there,” Thornhill said Thursday of Ashe’s portrait on the mural after he’d seen the damage. The city’s parks and recreation department had already covered the graffiti with black paint. “It let me know now how much more these projects are needed in our community.”
The Battery Park mural was unveiled in summer 2017 — two days after what would have been Ashe’s 74th birthday — as part of U.N.I.T.Y. Street Project, a yearlong initiative that used street art to honor and celebrate the impact of African Americans on Richmond’s neighborhoods throughout history. The mural covers the pedestrian tunnel that connects Richmond’s formerly segregated Battery Park tennis courts to the basketball courts.
Thornhill said another reason behind the mural project was to stop vandalism in these spaces.
“Once the mural is on a building, it’s usually left alone. Out of respect,” he said. “I’ve never had this happen before.”
Richmond police said officers were called at 10:42 a.m. Thursday to the northern edge of the park in the 2800 block of Dupont Circle, where they found spray paint on the mural that covers the pedestrian tunnel there. Police said it was second act of vandalism this week. A mural on a structure in the 3000 block of Meadowbridge Road in Highland Park, also in North Richmond, was defaced with similar markings Monday, police said.
“Hate will not be tolerated in Richmond,” said Police Chief Gerald M. Smith in a statement. “We are asking for the public’s help by being another set of eyes on the murals and monuments of Richmond.”
Police said they will be monitoring monuments and murals citywide.
Ashe is an international tennis icon as well as a celebrated author and humanitarian activist who opposed apartheid in South Africa. He won the 1968 U.S. Open and 1970 Australian Open in addition to his Wimbledon title in 1975. He died in 1993 at age 49.
A tribute to Ashe was erected on Monument Avenue in 1996. Prior to it becoming the only statue left there earlier this year after the street’s Confederate monuments were removed, someone defaced the street’s lone monument to a Black man amid weeks of protests against racism and police brutality. The demonstrations last year led state and city officials to remove all Confederate iconography from the historic avenue.
“Today, a mural to Richmond’s beloved humanitarian and native son, Arthur Ashe, was found vandalized with the insignia of a white nationalist hate group,” said Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney. “Those responsible for this, and other like-minded shameful and cowardly acts, will be held accountable. Let me be clear: Hate will not be tolerated in our city.”
Ashe’s nephew, David Harris Jr., who successfully pushed for the city to rename the city’s Boulevard for Ashe in 2019, said he was again not surprised to see a memorial to his uncle vandalized.
“It’s a travesty that they would waste people’s time and city resources to put out a message of this nature,” Harris said. “Prayerfully one day they’ll learn the truth. ... Little do they know that our resolve to end racism is greater than their resolve to keep it.”
The incident comes a week before the start of a federal court trial against more than a dozen participants and organizers of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville four years ago.
The defendants include James Alex Fields, who is serving multiple life sentences for a car attack that injured 35 people and killed Heather Heyer on the day of the rally.
Images from the event showed Fields marching with members of Vanguard America, holding a shield with the neo-Nazi group’s insignia.
The lawsuit, filed by the nonprofit Integrity First for America on behalf of several Charlottesville-area residents who were injured or impacted by the rally, accuses the defendants of conspiring to plan racially motivated violence.
Patriot Front slogans and tags have also been spray-painted on racial justice murals, a Hmong ethnic cultural center and other memorials across the country recently, according to various media reports.
“Arthur Ashe was totally innocent of all that’s going on right now,” said Thornhill, who would prefer that the city left the graffiti uncovered.
“Left for the public to see the destruction,” he said. “I think it should be seen, so we know what we’re dealing with.”
Depending on the damage, he said, “we’ll probably have to start over.”
He said the initial mural took more than three weeks to paint, but they were at the ready to see it restored.
“A lot of volunteers, and a lot of work and money went into it.”
Police said they have no suspects at this time. If the damage is $1,000 or more, anyone responsible could be charged with a felony, police said.
Anyone with information about the vandalism is asked to call Crime Stoppers at (804) 780-1000. Tips can also be submitted through the P3 Tips Crime Stoppers app. All Crime Stoppers reporting methods are anonymous.