A monument to the black tennis legend Arthur Ashe in Richmond, Va., was vandalized with spray paint that read “WLM” and “White Lives Matter” on Wednesday.
Mr. Ashe, a Richmond native, became the first black man to win Wimbledon, the Australian Open and the U.S. Open. His statue is on the city’s Monument Avenue, a residential street that extends for five miles into Henrico County and is dotted with a number of prominent Confederate monuments.
Passers-by said they saw a man in a blue T-shirt, dark red baseball cap and American flag bandanna spray paint “WLM” on the pedestal of the statue.
“We heard spray can rattling as we walked around the monument,” said Betsy Milburn, 45, who was walking along the avenue with her friend Fatima Pashaei.
As Ms. Milburn and Ms. Pashaei turned to the man, whose face was partially covered by his bandanna, he spoke to them.
“He said ‘You guys tagged my statue so I am tagging your statue,’” Ms. Milburn said. The man then walked to a white car and drove off, she said.
Someone also spray painted “BLM” for Black Lives Matter in pink over the initial “WLM” graffiti. Volunteers cleaned the monument, and all of the “White Lives Matter” graffiti was removed before the end of the day.
Virginia has seen over two weeks of protests against racism and police brutality, just like every other state in the country. Demonstrators were motivated by the death of George Floyd, a man who died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Mr. Floyd’s neck for several minutes.
On Tuesday night, protesters tore down the Howitzers Monument near Monroe Park campus, part of Virginia Commonwealth University. The monument was the third Confederate statue to be torn down by protesters in the state.
A woman who lived near Mr. Ashe’s statue arrived with cleaning supplies on Wednesday, and Ms. Milburn and Ms. Pashaei took turns cleaning the graffiti off the statue.
The man in the blue T-shirt came back later with a white cloth and tried to clean off the pink “BLM” letters.
“Why is it OK to spray paint on this statue ‘Black Lives Matter’ and not ‘White Lives Matter’? What’s the difference?” the man asked the women as they scrubbed the pedestal, according to a video shared by Ms. Milburn. “I’m not a racist, I just don’t agree with desecrating our property.”
The man told bystanders that he grew up in Richmond and that he attended a local high school. When asked his name, he replied, “Everybody.”
“Everybody that is here that has property value, everybody here that has paid to live here and is tired of seeing this,” the man said on the video, using expletives.
He then drove off as the women continued to clean the pedestal.
“I’m not sure why he felt the need to desecrate the one black statue on Monument Avenue,” Ms. Pashaei said in an interview Wednesday. “These Confederate generals might all be dead, but their foot soldiers are still alive and active here in Richmond.”
By the time Mr. Ashe’s nephew David Harris Jr. arrived at the statue, someone had cleaned the “WLM” and left “BLM,” he said. Mr. Harris had received several calls alerting him to the vandalism.
“I was disheartened about it,” Mr. Harris said. “People are outraged that people choose to vandalize a statue that represents peace, prosperity, inclusion, education, and the life and true fabric of the country: children.”
“It lets us know that there are folks out there that don’t believe in being inclusive,” he continued. “They believe in discriminatory acts and racism still.”
Mr. Ashe, a world-class tennis player, believed his trailblazing success provided him with the duty to stand against privilege, poverty and racism.
When Mr. Ashe died in 1993, he was lain in state at the Executive Mansion in Richmond. His statue on Monument Avenue was dedicated three years later to memorialize him and to provide a balance with the statues on the avenue dedicated to Confederate leaders.
When asked what he thought his uncle would say about the current climate in the United States, Mr. Harris did not hesitate.
“I don’t think he would be too surprised, but I think he would understand the nature of what the people are upset about, what the people are fighting for,” Mr. Harris said.
“I think he would support Black Lives Matter because what we are dealing with is not police brutality, it is a myriad things that has been woven into the fabric of America,” he said. “Some of those threads need to be yanked out.”