Honoring the legacy of the Richmond 34

An exhibit from The Valentine Museum of the lunch counter from Richmond sit-ins

The Valentine has a sit-in exhibit using actual chairs from the lunch counter. | Photo via @thevalentinerva

This Tues., Feb. 22 marks 62 years since 34 Virginia Union University students were arrested at a sit-in protest in downtown Richmond.

The history

Martin Luther King Jr. attended several conferences in the Richmond area from 1953-1963, speaking with preachers, businesspeople + VUU students. When sit-ins started in Greensboro, NC in Jan. 1960, more than 200 VUU students decided to do the same by sitting in at several local department stores.

Several days of marches and sit-ins went without incident, with students marching from Martin E. Gray Hall through downtown Richmond. It wasn’t until a few dozen sat down at the famous all-white Richmond Room — the lunch counter at the then-segregated Thalhimers department store — that police got involved.

The arrests

34 VUU students were arrested and charged with trespassing, and also faced a $20 fine — that’s equivalent to ~$190 today. According to the Black History Museum & Cultural Center, they’d brought schoolbooks to study, and were wearing their suits and pearls.

Protesters also gathered outside the stores, which put more pressure on Thalhimers and many other businesses to desegregate. The department store ended up being one of the first to allow Black customers the same services as white customers by the end of 1960.

A Historic National Marker ceremony in Richmond.

Several of the Richmond 34 attended the Historical Marker ceremony in 2016. | Photo via VUU Flickr

The impact

The students appealed their cases to the VA + US Supreme Court (Raymond B. Randolph et al. v. Virginia), where the convictions were overturned.

VCU professor Dr. Kimberly Matthews co-wrote the 2020 book “Richmond 34 and the Civil Rights Movement” with VUU history professor Dr. Raymond Pierre Hylton. Matthews told VCU News:

“...With this group, they were students so they had a lot to lose as well. Not just that, they could have been expelled from school. They were arrested, but it could have been a lot worse and knowing that they still did it. They knew what was right and what was wrong.”

These students’ actions were a key part of the movement leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The future

VUU first honored the protests’ 50th anniversary in 2010. They placed a marker where Thalhimers once stood, by the Miller & Rhoads apartment building. Six years later, a more detailed National Historic Marker now stands at West Broad and 6th Street.

If you’re heading to a Flying Squirrels game, you’ll notice “Richmond 34” painted along the outside of the Diamond. The Richmond 34 Legacy Mural, painted by Andre Shank, is a part of the team’s legacy campaign, put together with the help of Elizabeth Johnson Rice, one of the students arrested back in 1960.

The Diamond of the Flying Squirrels in Richmond.

Richmond’s Flying Squirrels have had a Richmond 34 Legacy Mural since 2017.

The #34 has been retired from Squirrels jerseys — the only other retirement stands as Jackie Robinson’s #42. However, the number was emblazoned on all of their uniforms for the special Richmond 34 Legacy Weekend series.

The team is also working with two Richmond-area HBCUs, Virginia Union + Virginia State, to give students professional experience working with the Minor League organization.

Know any special events honoring the 34 this year? Let us know.

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