RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Feb. 22nd, 2019, marks the beginning of a new chapter for civil rights leaders who demonstrated against the injustices of segregation.
“We stand for justice and hope and all of those good things," explained Elizabeth Johnson Rice.
Johnson Rice is a member of the Richmond 34, a group of Virginia Union University students who made their way in to the Thalhimer’s Department Store lunch counter, where they sat until police arrived to arrest them. 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.
A Supreme Court decision eventually overturned their convictions. In 2018, they discovered the trespassing charge still existed on their records.
Dr. Anderson J. Franklin made the discovery when preparing to leave the country. He reached out to the Richmond NAACP and Johnson-Rice to begin the work needed for a clean slate.
On the anniversary of the sit-in, 59 years to the day, the event was marked by a day of celebrations and the chance for community, city and state leaders to honor the Richmond 34 for their bravery and the change they sparked.
At an event held at Virginia Union called “Journey Through Time,” Rev. Dr. Leroy Bray, Dr. Anderson J. Franklin, Ford Tucker Johnson Jr. and Elizabeth Johnson Rice shared their experiences and imparted wisdom. They spoke about the importance of keeping the story of the Richmond 34 and civil rights alive, and the importance of learning from it and making changes in the face of modern injustices.
Mayor Levar Stoney declared Feb. 22, 2019, “Richmond 34 Day.” The group was honored with commemorative plaques following a meeting with Gov. Ralph Northam, and Sen. Tim Kaine, and Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring wrote letters of appreciation for their service.
It all led up to a moment retired Judge Birdie Jamison and the Richmond NAACP had been working to make happen for months.
“Your records are now expunged,” the words spoken by Judge Joi Taylor, to three members of the Richmond 34.
In a full courtroom, three members of the Richmond 34 had their records expunged, the beginning of more to come for the living legends.
“It is a story that needs to continue,” said Jamison.
The Richmond NAACP paid for the court costs, and their goal is to ensure all 34 records are cleared. Elizabeth Johnson Rice, Rev. Dr. Leroy Bray and Wendell Foster were given a copy of their fingerprints and met with a standing ovation.
“This does a wonderful, marvelous thing for me in my spirit and I thank the judge and the court for setting me free from that record of many years ago," Bray said.
Wendell Foster said only one time in his career in education, a few years after his arrest, did a criminal record ever come into question. Foster said while applying for a job with Richmond Public Schools, his background checked was flagged, but he is thankful someone vouched for him, and it did not affect his career.
“[I’m] really humbled, very glad this is over," Foster said. "Change is possible, positive change is possible.”
The Richmond NAACP says at least two more can expect their records to be cleared in the next few weeks.
Rice held back tears speaking about what it means for them and the greater community.
“We as a body, the Richmond 34, can do something in solidarity to address the issues of the nation," she said. "What comes next, I feel like I need to go to another platform, using my platform in civil rights.”
Rice says there is more work to do, and they are hopeful more people will see the need to work for positive change.