“A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” warns the iconic slogan of the United Negro College Fund. That applies to social justice movements.
As the local Black Lives Matter movement goes about the task of dismantling systemic racism, it should not forget the Richmond 34, the Virginia Union University students who did that work six decades ago. Their marches and sit-ins ended segregation in department stores such as Thalhimers, where Black customers could neither dine nor try on clothing.
Taking to the streets to speak truth to power, then and now, is a tremendous act of courage not without consequences.
“The Richmond Dispatch paper published all of our names a day or so after we were arrested — I mean, all of our names, our full names,” recalled Dr. Anderson J. Franklin, one of the Richmond 34. “We started getting letters. I remember getting anonymous letters from the Ku Klux Klan, saying that they know where we are, don’t come off campus, we may come up on campus.”
Franklin was among several Richmond 34 members who participated in “Courageous Conversations,” a virtual forum presented by the VUU National Alumni Association’s Vice Admiral Samuel L. Gravely Jr. Capital Beltway Alumni Chapter. (I moderated.)
VUU was a hotbed of student activism during the 1960s — the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders were no strangers to its Lombardy Street campus.
As that activism waned over the years, so did the memories. It took a 2004 commemorative march organized by Richmond 34 member Elizabeth Johnson Rice to rekindle the moment when 200 VUU students marched downtown to protest the second-class treatment.
Thirty-four of them would be arrested at Thalhimers, including Rice’s brother, Ford T. Johnson Jr., who later would refuse to sit in the Black section of Richmond traffic court. In April 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his contempt conviction and ordered the desegregation of all courtrooms, he recalled Saturday.
Two months later, the justices also overturned the trespassing convictions of Johnson, Rice and the other VUU students in the Thalhimers case. But it wasn’t until decades later — when Franklin was flagged while applying for a Global Entry permit to expedite his travel through U.S. customs — that they realized that the trespassing arrests were still on their record. The charges were expunged in 2019, but this should be a cautionary tale for today’s protesters.
In the meantime, as we reimagine Richmond’s spaces of honor amid our racial reckoning, the Richmond 34 deserve more than a relatively obscure memorial on VUU’s campus and an East Broad Street marker at the site of the old Thalhimers, now the Dominion Energy Center.
North Carolina A&T University has not been nearly as reticent in recognizing the Greensboro 4, whose lunch counter sit-in — on Feb. 1, 1960, three weeks before the Richmond demonstrations — would become part of national civil rights movement lore. A monument to demonstrators David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr. and Joseph McNeil — titled “February One” — stands in a prominent spot on the A&T campus.
Richmond 34 members want a special section on VUU’s website and a room commemorating their legacy in the university library. They’re fundraising for a documentary.
“If Virginia Union wants to be a part of that, well, we would welcome them. But I can’t wait for Virginia Union,” said Franklin, 80.
He loves VUU, which also is the alma mater of his father and brother. But, “They have been sort of reluctant participants and supporters and mobilizers for the Richmond 34 history. Like everybody has said, we played a vital part in the history of the civil rights movement.”
VUU and the city of Richmond have a ready-made spot for a monument befitting the Richmond 34: the traffic circle on Lombardy Street at the south entrance of the campus.
Even as they seek to preserve their history, Richmond 34 members aren’t resting on their laurels. Rice said some of their ranks have met with Natalie Andre, a Virginia Union alumna active in the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Though we did something back in 1960, we know we’re not going to be here forever, because many of us in this call are getting ready to be octogenarians, if we’re not already. So we want to keep the baton going,” Rice said.
“We’re not trying to make one movement better than the other. But we’ve got to join forces.”
Their fire still burns, six decades later. The book never closed on their movement; this merely is the next chapter.
BLM should partner with the elders, absorbing their experience and wisdom. In the continuing battle against injustice, no mind can go to waste.