The Richmond History Podcast

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Begining of the End of Segregation in Richmond.

The humble stone marker near where Thalhimer's once stood to honor the "Richmond 34", photo by Jeff Majer

The sit-in movement began Feb.1, 1960, in Greensboro, NC,1 and on February 20, 1960 it began in Richmond, VA when 200 VUU students marched "from the campus on Lombardy Street, down Chamberlayne Avenue, to Woolworth's department store on Broad Street," and other downtown stores and waited patiently to be served at the whites only lunch counters.2 Instead of serving them, management closed the store's lunch counters.3

Richmond 34 from Wikipedia
Two days later, on Feb 22, 34 seats at Thalhimer's were filled by VUU students led by Frank Pinkston and Charles Sherrod.1  Some headed up to Thalhimers' swank fourth-floor eatery, The Richmond Room, while others took seats at the lunch counter on the ground floor.2  Many of the students, ranging in age from 18-21, were honors students and had been counseled on nonviolent protest methods by a frequent VUU campus visitor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.1  All 34 were arrested after William B. Thalhimer Jr., owner of the department store that once stood on the south side of Broad St between 7th and 8th, called the police.2
Rev. Leroy M. Bray, who is now the Pastor of Christ Center in South Richmond, said he was the first at the lunch counter to be arrested, and told The Times Dispatch about when he realized,  "I didn't have an exit plan," but gained strength when he saw civil rights lawyer, Oliver W. Hill Sr. going up the escalator, mouthing the words, "Go on. It'll be all right. We'll be there".2

The black community gathered around the jail to make sure nothing happened to the students.2  The nonviolent tactics led to very little violence from either side on the struggle, unlike many similar sit ins in other southern cities.  The students quickly became known as the "Richmond 34" and the black community continued to rally around them.  The NAACP raised the money to bail the students out.  Some of the money came from, a VUU sorority that sacrificed plans for their cotillion and contributed the money to the bail fund, and Allix B. James, the Vice President of VUU and later its president, put his house up as collateral.2

After being bailed out the students were taken to the Eggelstone Hotel in Jackson Ward.  Some of the students were worried how their parents would react.  Protective parents gave warnings not to go to the sit in, but when the students arrived at the hotel they were happy to see their parents smiling.2

Three days after the sit-in at Thalhimer's, Gov. J Lindsay Almond Jr. signed emergency legislation that increased the penalties for trespassing and added a conspiracy charge.2   Increased penalties didn't stop the momentum started by the sit-ins.

The arrests lead to the Human Dignity Campaign.  The campaign included shopping boycotts and picketing by students and others from the community.  While picketers were outside Allix James met with Thalhimer.  He recalled Thalhimer "was very, very sympathetic” and "I'm pretty sure in his heart he did not go along with it."2  Thalhimer's daughter and the author of "Finding Thalhimer's" recalled her father saying "we didn't choose to be born Jewish, and no one chose to be black or white"2 when asked about the stand off years later.  
There was an offer to only desegregate the first floor lunch counter and not the second floor restaurants.  The compromise was rejected by the black leaders.2  The real financial pinch came with the Christmas season and the major offenders surrendered.1  Seven stores, including Thalhimers, and Miller &Rhodes quietly desegregated.2

Many of the students, now doctors, lawyers, teachers, and pastor, which were arrested back in 1960, returned to the site for the laying of the stone (pictured above) to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the end of segregation in Richmond. 

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