One of the city’s most recent landmarks was placed in Downtown Richmond to mark the fifitieth anniversary of a vital civil rights event led by students from Virginia Union University. On February 22, 1960, thirty-four students from the local historically black college sought to integrate the segregated lunch counter of Thalhimers Department Store and they were arrested. Just two days prior to that, 200 VUU students staged an initial protest, which had ended quietly in contrast. They had been inspired by the sit-ins carried out by fellow African-American students in Greensboro, NC. To recognize this local movement, a commemorative marker of the event located at Sixth and Broad Streets, the former location of the store, was dedicated by the CenterStage Foundation in February 2010. It celebrates the tenacity of these students who bravely tackled the injustice that blacks faced daily and it honors the legacy they shaped, leading to the desegregation of dining and shopping facilities throughout the city, including Thalhimers. Unfortunately, for the past few months, the marker has been hidden from full view.
Fifty-one years ago, the students had executed a plan to have various members of their group sit at the “Whites only” counter and place lunch orders. Since blacks were not allowed to dine in the facility, they were breaking the law. On two occasions, they were refused service. Some students experienced rude and disrespectful behavior from store patrons. They were all influenced by the non-violent teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Thus, they were steadfast in their endeavor as they quietly sat in the restaurant, peacefully making their stand. In the initial protest, the students remained until the store closed for the day. On the second protest, the Richmond Police Department arrived to take the returning thirty-four students into custody, citing them with trespassing per the store’s management. The apprehension of this group, now known as the “Richmond 34”, was one of the nation’s largest mass arrests during this turbulent era.
With the assistance of local leaders – black and white – and the NAACP, the students were soon released from the city jail. The actions of these brave students compelled the city to evaluate its unexpected role in the civil rights movement. It was an unforeseen social shift that was impossible to ignore. This period of unrest by blacks against racial inequity had expanded across the nation, leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial discrimination in public places such as schools, shopping facilities, and even in employment and hiring practices.
Less than one year after the unveiling of the stone created to celebrate the efforts of these young pioneers, the City of Richmond placed its new ice skating rink on the former Thalhimers site. The white picket fence surrounding the seasonal attraction has nearly concealed the stone completely from view. Although the barrier is temporary, it has been a hindrance to the landmark’s purpose. Those who are interested in seeing the stone have to hunt the area for it; others who are unaware of its existence simply pass it by, missing a vital opportunity to learn about this turning point in the civil rights movement and the contribution from local university students.
One of the “Richmond 34”, Elizabeth Johnson Rice of Bowie, Maryland, who was arrested during the Thalhimers sit-in, is proud of their participation in this significant moment of local history. For several years, she had spearheaded a movement to have the city recognize their actions, which finally came to pass last year with a tremendous amount of fanfare and publicity. She was dismayed to discover how their achievements had been covered up by the fence.
“It’s important to commemorate the marker every year,” said Mrs. Rice. “People should take the time to stop and look at it to acknowledge the importance of what was being recognized of what happened 51 years ago. [However], for the city to cover up again, to have it hidden again like it never happened, is unconscionable.
“Since this has occurred only one year after [the marker] was unveiled, who’s to say if it will be entirely covered next year,” she continued. “The theme of the recognition ceremonies was “Sit-In/Stand-Out”. It’s not standing out at all anymore.”
This historic marker is located behind CenterStage on Sixth Street, between Grace and Broad Streets. Be sure to stop by to see it on your next visit to Downtown Richmond.
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