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Arthur Ashe Jr mural defaced with white supremacist graffiti

covered up graffiti
A mural honoring Arthur Ashe was defaced in Battery Park earlier today. The white supremacy symbols were covered up by the time VPM arrived. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

A mural of tennis player Arthur Ashe Jr. in Richmond’s Battery Park was defaced with graffiti advertising a white supremacist group. Police responded to calls from neighborhood residents on Thursday morning, and the tags were quickly covered in black paint.

Local legend claims that Ashe grew up playing at the Battery Park courts; although that's since been dispelled, and residents say the courts had no nets during Ashe's childhood, the legend was immortalized in 2017 by muralist James Thornhill, with the help of a number of other Richmond artists.

He says it’s the first time his work has been targeted by any vandalism, let alone white nationalist propaganda.

“Just walking down here as an artist and seeing this black spot where we had a wonderful picture of Arthur Ashe, it feels like someone just put a silencer on my mouth,” Thornhill said. “Saying ‘don’t talk, don’t speak, don’t be creative, don’t express yourself, or we’re gonna retaliate.’”

Jonathan Davis, president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters, says the mural, which runs through a tunnel underneath a large hill bisecting Battery Park, changed the outlook for the area.

​​”This brought both sides of the park together,” Davis said. “People were able to walk through here and it was a living museum of Arthur Ashe’s legacy and everything he did for the city of Richmond and the world.”

Thornhill went out to see the damage on Thursday afternoon. He says it’s hard to see weeks of effort covered up by a patch of black paint — it’s a piece he was very proud of — but it’s worse to come face-to-face with what he called a hate crime.

“It doesn’t feel good. You can hear about it on television, read about it, but when it happens in your neighborhood, and it happens to some work you’ve done, it hits home,” Thornhill said. “And It’s got me very emotional and I don’t know how I’m feeling right now.”

Thornhill says he worked on the mural for three weeks, in the summer heat, but it’s not the lost work that gets to him as much as the racism.

No one has claimed responsibility for the vandalism, though the tags advertised Patriot Front, a white supremacist group that formed in the aftermath of nationalist violence in Charlottesville in 2017, where a car attack left one counter protester dead and several more injured.

Thornhill says he’s seen the same tags elsewhere in the city, and reports of KKK flyers in Richmond’s surrounding counties have been circulated.

Several people involved in organizing the 2017 rally are headed to federal court next week, where they’re being sued for injuries caused.

Correction: A prior version of this story incorrectly stated that Ashe played at Battery Park. This was an error. There is no evidence that Ashe played in Battery Park, which some residents say didn't even have nets, but extensive documentation that Ashe played in Brookfield Park, which at the time was the largest park accessible to Black residents.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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