November 05, 2008 News & Features » Cover Story


The Barriers They Broke 

Just 48 years before a black man ran for president, Virginia Union University students put themselves on the front lines of Richmond's civil-rights movement.

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It was a very different Richmond in 1960.

Few people, 50 years later, pause to think, while passing the nothingness at Seventh and Broad streets where the old Thalhimers department store once stood, that this was once the center of what rightfully called itself, during the 1950s and '60s, “exciting downtown Richmond.”

Even fewer know that what happened there on Feb. 22, 1960, would forever change the lives of millions. The event was the arrest of 34 Virginia Union University students on charges of trespassing. Their specific offense was asking for service at the whites-only Richmond Room Restaurant. They were not white. Racial segregation was then a way of life, the law of Virginia.

View the Photos.

Downtown Richmond was then Central Virginia area's glossiest shopping magnet. A variety of shops was there. It was the place to go at Christmas and Easter, where children were photographed with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. A family excursion to downtown Richmond was an eagerly anticipated treat. African-Americans could shop, but they could not sit down to eat at the lunch counters and restaurants; nor were they allowed to try on items of clothing before purchase — or allowed to return purchases that did not fit.

The sit-in movement began Feb. 1, 1960, in Greensboro, N.C., and spread. At Virginia Union, student leaders Frank Pinkston and Charles Sherrod and other students had been counseled on the methods of nonviolent protest by a frequent campus visitor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

On Feb. 20, more than 200 Virginia Union students marched from the campus across Lombardy Street, down to Chamberlayne Avenue and then down Broad Street to the downtown shopping district, which ran from between First and 10th streets, and Broad Street, and pretty well along the same axis of Grace Street.

The students sat down at all-white lunch counters; were denied service, but maintained their seats until the stores closed. On Feb. 22, students again converged downtown and expanded their operations to include the swanky Thalhimers Richmond Room. When the 34 students sitting at Thalhimers refused to move, the owner had the police arrest them for trespassing. Some of the white customers verbally abused them and scalded them with hot coffee. 

Of this Richmond 34 group, some were as young as 18, most no older than 23. Many were honor students who would later become lawyers and judges, teachers, administrators, and ministers. The 34 were herded into six patrol wagons and charged. Released, the students were triumphantly feted at the Hotel Eggleston. The arrests launched the Campaign for Human Dignity. A shopping boycott was begun and establishments were picketed by Virginia Union and high-school students, and others. By the 1960 Christmas season the downtown merchants were experiencing the full sting of the Campaign for Human Dignity. The major offenders surrendered, and the walls of segregation had been breached.

The civil rights movement in Richmond neatly spanned the 1960s. In January of 1960, the Jim Crow infrastructure throughout Richmond seemed to be solidly established. By December 1969, much had been dismantled. It was during that December that the voters of Richmond, in a special election, overwhelmingly chose a lawyer named L. Douglas Wilder as the first African-American to fill a Virginia State Senate seat since Reconstruction — an election that was probably of deeper historical significance than even the 1989 gubernatorial race because it marked the culmination of a lengthy struggle, and the start of one of Virginia's most significant political careers.

The Richmond 34

Elizabeth Patricia Johnson
Joanna Hinton
Gloria C. Collins
Patricia A. Washington
Barbara A. Thornton
Lois B. White
Thalma Y. Hickman
Celia E. Jones
Carolyn Ann Horne
Marise L. Ellison
Virginia G. Simms
Frank George Pinkston
Charles Melvin Sherrod
Albert Van Graves Jr.
Ford Tucker Johnson Jr.
Leroy M. Bray Jr.
Wendell T. Foster Jr.
Anderson J. Franklin
Ronald B. Smith
Larry Pridgen
Woodrow B. Grant
Joseph E. Ellison
Gordon Coleman
Milton Johnson
Donald Vincent Goode
Robert B. Dalton
Samuel F. Shaw
Randolph A. Tobias
Clarence A. Jones
Richard C. Jackson
George Wendall Harris Jr.
John J. McCall
Leotis L. Pryor
Raymond B. Randolph Jr.


The Richmond 34 in Their Own Words

Dr. Raymond Pierre Hylton is professor of history at Virginia Union University, where he has been teaching full time since 1991.  He is also  writing a history of Virginia Union University.

Joe Louis Simmons, 72
Retired Principal, Armstrong High School
Retired Administrator, Richmond Public Schools

Students from North Carolina A & T State University in Greensboro, N.C., sat at a Woolworth's lunch counter on Feb. 1, 1960, refusing to leave until they were served. Management closed the counter, but the tactic, modeled on Martin Luther King Jr.'s strategies for nonviolent protest, swept across the South. Students from Virginia Union University joined in, launching a series of peaceful protests that would ultimately desegregate the landmark department stores downtown. Simmons was one of those students.

We had all the respect in the world for [Virginia Union University's then-president Samuel] Proctor. One of my real vivid memories of Dr. Proctor was I was standing in Pickford Hall … that's where his office was, and I was reading the bulletin board and he came in.

He said, “Good morning Joe.”

“Good morning, Doc.”

I had on dark glasses, sunglasses, and I had on moccasins with no socks, and I had a Vandyke [a kind of beard], and of course all were unheard of. So he put his arm around my shoulder, and both of us are looking at this bulletin board, but he is reaming me out as he looked at the bulletin board.

“Here you are Joe, you're standing in my building. You have no socks on. You have a Vandyke. You have dark glasses on.”

I said, “Doc, I apologize and I guarantee you I'll get it all cleaned up by tomorrow.”

He said “I know you will.”

This was '60 … and I was doing my student teaching at Armstrong [High School]. It was rumored on the campus that we were going to go downtown and have a sit-in. … but Dr. Proctor got wind of it. So we didn't have the kind of communication systems you have now, e-mail and all of that. He had to put bulletins on all of the buildings, on the trees, on the campus and everything, that there would be a meeting of all persons who intend to protest and sit in tonight at Coburn Hall at 7 o'clock.

So we went up. And Doc was there. He said, “So why you going down there?”

“Well Doc, we got to do our part. We gotta go down and sit in and let everybody know we deserve all the [waves his hands in front of him].”

It was a bunch, [200] guys and gals, and he asked us several questions. What he was trying to find out was, what were our intentions. …. After we assured him that we're going there and we're going to be on our best behavior, we will represent Virginia Union very, very well, he gave his blessings. He said, “Well, OK. Go. But you know what I expect of Virginia Union University students.”

We said, “Yeah Doc, OK, we got it covered.”

Kids who didn't have morning classes would go down when they opened up, [stay] for a couple hours, maybe go back to class and then another shift would come down by 12 o'clock or so. I was leaving my student teaching in Church Hill, caught the bus up to Seventh and Broad, got off, go over and got in line.

The ladies who would normally be serving people, many of them were African-American women, and you could look in their face and see how proud they were.
— as told to Amy Biegelsen


LaVerne Byrd Smith, 80
Retired Schoolteacher, Thalhimers Picketer

Smith, a longtime Richmond schoolteacher, was organizing a community dance in 1960 when more than 200 Virginia Union University students decided to march from campus to participate in a lunch counter sit-in at Thalhimers downtown. A schoolteacher who was also president of the graduate chapter Alpha Kappa Alpha, the oldest African-American sorority in the country, she decided that the funds raised for the dance, to be held at the Mosque, would be better used to help bail out the 34 students arrested in the protest.

They didn't stay in jail but two days. I was proud of them.

Students had been sitting in North Carolina. We had been reading about it and no one had done anything like that around here. When we find out that they were arrested, one of the things we did was to say, “Here we are having a dance, spending money on this.” … This was a large formal dance. We put the invitation in the Afro-American [newspaper]. Usually we had them at the Mosque, at the Landmark now. We put the invitation in the paper with “canceled” across it. We said we would use the funds from that and help get people out of the jail.

In terms of how I felt about it, I was very interested in helping the students. And felt that we could, instead of entertaining ourselves, that we had to make a change in our priorities, and see about our children, our students.

Our group made signs and set up picket lines and we did take the leadership in that. Once we had gotten them out [of jail], we made up signs and set up the lines of picketing. It went on for a pretty good while.

There was a Thalhimers over in South Richmond, on Hull Street, one branch of it [at 12th and Hull streets]. I kept saying people are getting on the bus and going over to South Richmond to the store, so they didn't necessarily listen. And I said, well, we need someone over there. And I went over there and I picketed by myself. We had five or six policemen out there and dogs and me. ... I wasn't afraid. … During that time you could, for instance, not try on hats in Thalhimers and for some fair time try on clothes. You didn't have blacks working in the stores as sales people.

That was one step along the way, when those students did the sit-in.

When I was four years old [I] got on the streetcar and got up in the seat and sat beside a white woman, and she jumped up and got off the car because this little girl was sitting next to her. And she wasn't kind enough to say girl, she said the N-word.

My mother came and got me and said we had to sit in the back of the streetcar. So I have fought every battle since then because deep inside of me I'm saying why, why is it we have to sit in the back of the bus? And I very seldom sat in the back of the bus; I sat in the streetcar, on the front seat of the bus and they would stop the car, but they wouldn't arrest me. I tried to get arrested.

[That's] When I first became a rebel. I asked my mother, “Why do we have to sit in the back of the bus?” And she said it's the law. And I said, “Who makes the law?” And she said the legislature. My mother went to Virginia State [University]. And I kept asking why. She was trying to explain to me and I'm saying who can change the laws? And she said lawyers. And I said I'm going to be a lawyer.

And all my life I was going to be a lawyer and I was going to change the laws. But when I got into college, and was getting ready to go to law school … I met my husband and I didn't go to law school. But I still have been fighting all the battles along the way. — as told to Scott Bass

 The Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, 80
Retired Pastor
Gilfield Baptist Church, Petersburg

Nonviolent protest was nothing new when the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, a Petersburg church leader, helped co-found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But when the Rev. Martin Luther King tapped Walker to plan the 1963 protests in Birmingham, Ala., the two civil-rights leaders transformed the lunch counter protest from an isolated incident to a battle plan that helped topple segregation there and ushered in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “The purpose of ... direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation,” King said of his concept. Walker was King's commanding general and architect of the Birmingham protest.

It seems bizarre that a public library should be segregated. My first arrest of 17 was at the Petersburg Library, because I went through the white door. I … asked for [former Richmond News Leader editor] Douglas Southall Freeman's biography of Robert E. Lee, vol. 1. That's what I asked for and I ended up in the Petersburg Jail, where I stayed for a couple of days. That was my first of 17 arrests.

I was in most of [the Rev. Martin Luther King's] demonstrations in one way or another, but primarily as the general. I was the person on the ground and Dr. King was deciding what attacks we should make.

A lot of times, I left my home, my wife and four children and I never knew if I would come back. It was very dangerous for us on the front line. When I went to Birmingham I didn't think I would come out alive. Birmingham was the most violent and racist city in America.

It was the capital of domestic terror. The truth is always inflammatory. And when truth is declared, the guilty scream. That's why there was so much reaction to [the Rev.] Jeremiah Wright's sermons.

The children's marches [are] what toppled and forced the business community to start the talks that led to the truce desegregating Birmingham. Over 5,000 were arrested; they were 5 or 6 years [old] on up — high-school students, Miles College students.

We acted in spite of our fears, and the fear of death, which is probably the primary fear a human being has. But we acted in spite of it because we were committed to the ideals of freedom and equality for every American citizen. We never were tempted to use violence in our demonstrations. Maybe we got that from our forefathers, who could have poisoned their mistresses and masters, but they didn't. They endured what they had to endure. … and yet came out of it a stronger people. Hate not only immobilizes the victim, but also the people who impose their will upon victims. We could have been a stronger nation if there never had been slavery.

I think we've taken a giant step with this presidential campaign. … putting the culture of racism in retreat in America. [Sen. Barack] Obama's candidacy is the front edge of the dream of Martin Luther King.

— as told to Chris Dovi




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