Elizabeth Johnson Rice feels that her involvement with the Richmond Flying Squirrels is nothing less than divine intervention.
Johnson Rice is a member of the Richmond 34, a group of Black students at Virginia Union University who staged a sit-in demonstration on Feb. 22, 1960, when they were denied service at Thalhimers department store.
Wednesday morning — 61 years and two days later — the Squirrels announced a bevy of initiatives to honor the Richmond 34. Johnson Rice will serve as community ambassador for the Double-A organization.
“I’m elated to be a part of them as their ambassador,” Johnson Rice, 80, said of the Squirrels. “I’m calling myself the goodwill ambassador, because I’m going to be spreading goodwill wherever I go. ... This thing about racism, we’re going to get it gone.”
Johnson Rice will collaborate with the team on educational and community outreach programs to tell the story of the demonstration as part of the Richmond 34 Legacy Campaign.
Included in the initiatives to honor the local civil rights heroes is a Richmond 34 Legacy mural, painted by Richmond-based painter and sculptor Andre Shank, stretching across the top of the outer rim of The Diamond.
Also announced were a career advancement and mentorship campaign for Virginia State University and VUU students, and a Richmond 34 Legacy Weekend during the 2021 season. The weekend will feature an “End Racism” T-shirt giveaway printed with a design by Richmond artist Noah Scalin and Marc Cheatham of The Cheats Movement.
The Squirrels also retired the No. 34 from on-field use, just the second number retired by the organization after Jackie Robinson’s No. 42, which was retired by Major League Baseball in 1997.
In addition to Johnson Rice, three other members of the Richmond 34 attended the ceremony — Wendell Foster, LeRoy Bray and Samuel Shaw. They were presented with Flying Squirrels No. 34 jerseys, and all 34 names will be etched separately onto individual steps leading up the concourse at The Diamond. Other members of the 34 watched the ceremony via livestream.
Flying Squirrels CEO Todd “Parney” Parnell said he covets the relationship his organization has with the Richmond community. And imperative to him in that connection is establishing a purposefulness to impact communal change.
That purpose is what drove the Squirrels to honor the Richmond 34. It’s also what stuck with Parnell the most after the ceremony, conducted amid the fitting backdrop of warm, sunny weather unseasonably conducive to baseball.
“To get kids to go home and talk about the issues, the issues of 1960 and the issues of 2021, it’s those type of things that make us way more than a baseball team in this community,” Parnell said.
“And that’s exactly what we want to be. We don’t want to be just a baseball team, we want to be a community impacter.”
VUU President Hakim Lucas and VSU President Makola Abdullah spoke at the ceremony, as did Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney.
“It’s a beautiful day for baseball, but it’s also a beautiful day to celebrate Black history in the city of Richmond,” Stoney said.
“It’s a beautiful day not just because the sun is finally shining in the city of Richmond, but because today, we in the city of Richmond, along with our friends at Virginia Union and our friends at the Richmond Flying Squirrels are shining the light of recognition on a legacy that helped define our city, and indeed had ripple effects that defined our nation.”
Parnell said at the heart of the initiatives is a desire for the Squirrels to contribute to conversations of equality. He hopes that when a parent drives by the stadium with their child and sees the mural, or explains why the numbers 42 and 34 are imprinted on the wall next to the tarp, that the dialogue helps educate the next generation about the fight for racial equality in Richmond and around the nation.
“We’re taking our platform and we want to spread the story of the Richmond 34 because it should be one of the most talked about historical moments in Richmond, Virginia history,” Parnell said.