Virginia Union University alum recalls Thalhimers sit-in on 56th anniversary

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — It was Monday, February 22, 1960.

Elizabeth Johnson Rice was just 19-years-old and walking with her brother to class at Virginia Union University (VUU).

“The atmosphere was different that day,” Rice said. “Instead of going to class, for some reason, I saw picket signs and I said, ‘They’re getting ready to picket downtown.'”

Motivated by the student sit-in protests in Greensboro, N.C., Rice said 200 VUU students walked from Lombardy Street to a Thalhimers department store on Broad Street.

“I just couldn’t believe that I, myself, had walked from there and here I am now, sitting on a lunch room counter that does not cater to blacks, to getting a hot dog or getting a hamburger for whatever,” Rice said, “And before we knew it, we saw the police wagons pull up and I said, ‘Oh my goodness, the police are going to arrest us.'”

34 students were arrested, including Rice and her brother. She said it took about an hour for the community to rally together and post the students’ bond.

“When we got out of the jailhouse, people were lined up from corner to corner and people were just clapping and giving us high fives,” Rice said. “It all hit me. You stood up for what was right and you stood up for what you believe.”

Rice said the VUU students were soon recognized across the country as the ‘Richmond 34.’ This sit-in would be one of many peaceful protests hoping to end segregation.

“I knew that I should be able to order a hotdog or a sandwich there,” Rice said, “but I didn’t know the impact that our actions had done that day.”

Rice said in 2010, a monument with the names of the 34 VUU students was placed at Martin E. Gray Hall, the building that they once walked from 56 years ago. Raymond Pierre Hylton, chair of the Department of History and Political Science, said his goal is to make sure students today remember the Richmond 34 and their push for progress.

“Civil rights right now is incomplete,” Hylton said. “It’s a work in progress. We’ve definitely made huge strides. No more segregated lunch counters. No more segregated bus, a greater equality of opportunity, but still the one most pernicious form of discrimination, the one that is perfectly legal and we haven’t addressed, that is economic discrimination.”

Many of the Richmond 34 would continue to break barriers. Rice said she was the first African American teacher at Petersburg High School and she will never forget what it was like on her first day.

“I remember the day I walked into the classroom and I saw that written on the board, ‘We want to lynch you,’” Rice said. “I said, ‘Let me say this up front. You know I’m not here for a popularity contest…’ I told them, ‘My name was Elizabeth Johnson Rice and I am here to teach you, so let’s get started.’ Things went on that way for a while.”

Rice said it was years later when a movie “To Sir, With Love,” starring Sidney Poitier, started to change people’s perspectives.

“When this movie came to Petersburg, the next day in the teachers’ lounge they didn’t walk out, they said, ‘Hi, how are you?’ Just  like the whole atmosphere changed in that school.”

Rice still speaks to young people today, sharing her story and encouraging students to be active and stand up for what is right.

“Remember when you have things easy or you feel comfortable and wonderful and you can go where you want to go, when you want to go and not have to deal with these barriers that many before you had to deal with just remember that somebody paid the price,” Rice said. “Somebody paid the price before I even got involved.”

If you’d like to learn more about Miss Rice, click here to check out information from her organization’s website.

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