RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - It has been 58 years since Virginia Union University descended upon downtown Richmond to march and sit in the name of social justice.
“I don’t know where my books went, all I know is, before I knew it, I had a sign in my hand and we walked on down to Thalheimer’s,” explained Elizabeth Johnson-Rice. “We could feel something in the air.”
200 students were led to first picket the store that had long refused service to African-American people at their lunch counter. 34 students made their way in, where they sat, until police arrived to arrest them.
“We all looked at each other- we never said a word,” Johnson-Rice said. “We were perfect gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen.”
They were soon taken to jail and charged with trespassing. The NAACP paid their bail, and after getting out of jail, the community celebrated their actions.
“We stood up for what we believed in,” she said. “You’ve got to be willing to go the second mile for your fellow man."
They have since been known as the Richmond 34. Throughout the City of Richmond, you will find three historical markers detailing their bravery. A children’s book about Johnson-Rice and the Richmond 34 was also written, another way to preserve the history.
The Supreme Court overturned their convictions in 1963, but recently they learned the story did not end there.
“How did I get a job as a teacher? Or work with the government?” said Johnson-Rice. “Apparently the records were dismissed, but they were not expunged.”
Johnson-Rice says that discovery came from retired professor Dr. A.J. Franklin, who was flagged by Homeland Security while attempting to travel out of the country recently. Dr. Franklin told Johnson-Rice that he was told he needed proof of the dismissal, because his arrest record still showed up in searched.
“He called me and he said ‘What that means Elizabeth, is if my record is active, your record is active and all of the Richmond 34,’" she said.
Johnson says they assumed for decades their records had been expunged, but are now learning, an extra step was never taken.
“This really should have been addressed way back then, but now is the perfect time, now that it has come to our attention, for us to address it and make it right and say their records are clean,” explained retired Judge Birdie Jamison, head of the Richmond NAACP legal redress committee.
Jamison says Dr. Franklin’s concerns were sent to them, and a plan has already been put into action, which will include working with circuit court judges and the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office to approve the expungements. Jamison is hopeful they will go through without any issues.
“What they did was noble and right and they should have never been convicted of the trespassing in the first place,” said Jamison.
The goal is to have the expungements approved and completed by the 2019 anniversary of the Richmond 34. Johnson-Rice and Jamison are pushing for sealed proclamation that can be given to the Richmond 34 and their families.
As the next steps in the latest part of their journey continue, Johnson says the revelation is a reminder of the hard work and persistence of the past, and a lesson that can be referred to in the present and future.