RICHMOND – Fifty years ago, 34 students from Virginia Union University were arrested for conducting a sit-in to integrate the “whites-only” lunch counter at the Thalhimers department store. Their act of civil disobedience helped break the segregation barrier in Richmond.
Last week, the commonwealth of Virginia honored the “Richmond 34” by dedicating a historic marker at Richmond CenterStage, where Thalhimers once stood.
The brave students “opened up the whole city and brought about a new sense of freedom and opportunity for all the citizens in the city of Richmond and the commonwealth of Virginia,” said Dr. Claude Perkins, president of Virginia Union.
The marker ceremony was part of a weeklong series of events titled “Sit-In/Stand Out” to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the sit-in.
On Feb. 20, 1960, more than 200 students from Virginia Union, a historically black university on Richmond’s North Side, marched down Broad Street to Thalhimers and then sat in the “whites-only” dining areas of Thalhimers.
They were denied service but peacefully remained in their seats until Thalhimers closed.
Two days later, 34 Virginia Union students returned to Thalhimers, sat at the lunch counter and asked for service. Again, the students were denied. Remaining calm and non-confrontational, all 34 students were arrested and subsequently kick-started the civil rights movement in Richmond.
Before the sit-in, the members of the Richmond 34 experienced a sense of nervousness, concern and excitement.
“There was an excitement for possibilities of what could materialize from our actions,” said the Rev. Leroy M. Bray Jr., a member of the group.
Bray, who delivered a sermon at Virginia Union as part of “Sit-In/Stand Out,” said the Richmond 34 members also were “trying to confront all that was asked of us with the nonviolent retaliation.”
Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt, granddaughter of William B. Thalhimer Jr., the chief executive officer of Thalhimers at the time of the sit-in, was on hand for many of the anniversary events.
Smartt said she is proud of her family’s involvement in the desegregation of businesses in Richmond. She said her grandfather underwent a moral dilemma during the sit-in.
“He told me we were trying to figure out how to integrate without ruining our whole patronage,” Smartt said. “Judgment and incident told me integration was the right thing. People are people under God. He did not decide to be Jewish. No one decides to be black or white.”
Important African-American leaders from throughout the country came to Richmond last week to honor the Richmond 34. They included Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and chief executive officer of the NAACP, and Sheila Johnson, co-owner of Black Entertainment Television.
“We have to understand, we are standing on the shoulders of giants,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t just Martin Luther King. The Richmond 34 laid down the foundation for all of us.”
The final night of the celebration was capped by a performance by Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter John Legend. He told a CenterStage audience that the Richmond 34 made a courageous sacrifice.
“It’s an important thing to remember,” he said. “Some people underestimate the importance of history and commemorating the legacy of important people.”