‘A gentle giant’: Remembering civil rights leader, member of the Richmond 34, Rev. Dr. Leroy Bray Jr.
RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - If you ask Rev. Scott Bray to describe his father, a civil rights leader, he will say Rev. Dr. Leroy Bray Jr. was a gentle giant.
“I’ve met thousands. I don’t mean hundreds. I’ve met thousands of people whose life that he touched in Caroline County, and they remember him today,” Rev. Scott Bray explained. “I’ve got so many calls and so many texts and emails about his legacy and about what he had done for them. He is a giant, but he’s a gentle giant.”
The pastor, civil rights leader, retired teacher and history maker passed away on October 28, 2022.
“He taught us at a young age to stand up for your rights,” said Rev. Scott Bray.
Rev. Dr. Leroy Bray Jr. was a husband, father and grandfather who was born in Hanover County on August 17, 1939. While raising his family, Rev. Scott Bray says there was a story he didn’t know about his father for many years.
“He always wondered ‘why certain doors were closed in my face and I couldn’t get a job’, he said. ‘I have a record,’ he said.”
The record came from Rev. Dr. Bray taking a stand against the injustices of segregation. Rev. Dr. Leroy Bray was a member of the Richmond 34. The Richmond 34 was a group of Virginia Union University students who held a sit-in that led to changes in the city of Richmond.
On Feb. 22, 1960, 200 VUU students were led to first picket The Thalheimer’s Department store, where the lunch counter had long refused service to African-American people. Thirty-four students made their way in, where they sat, until police arrived to arrest them for trespassing.
“The men had suits on, ties on overcoats. The women had nice looking white dresses on pearls around their neck, and back then women wore gloves,” said Rev. Scott Bray. “I liked the fact that it was a peaceful protest.”
Rev. Dr. Leroy Bray Jr. was one of the first students to be arrested.
“He said that he sat in the jail by himself for a while. Nobody was talking to him - he said time was going by real slow and he started thinking, ‘man, is anybody going to come get me out of here?’ They finally told him, ‘hey, you know, you’ve been freed. You can you can go now,’” he explained. “Recently we talked about it and he said that Mr. Thalheimer called the police chief [at the time] and said ‘don’t you harm those students.’
The NAACP paid their bail, and after getting out of jail, the community celebrated their actions. The Supreme Court overturned their convictions in 1963.
Elizabeth Johnson Rice, another member of the Richmond 34, will never forget the day.
“I got a gut punch. I realized, oh, my goodness, I did something special today. Thirty-four of us did. We stood up for injustice and we stood up for people that couldn’t stand for themselves because of the Jim Crow laws,” she said. “Then I really felt good. I said, ‘Well, whatever happens is okay now because I did something good. My dad, my mother should be really proud of this.’”
In 2019, after years of not knowing the Richmond 34 still carried trespassing charges on their records, their records were expunged in Richmond Circuit Court.
Johnson Rice says she remembers Rev. Dr. Bray’s kindness through the years as the Richmond 34 have continued efforts for social change.
“He was a wonderful person. Leroy was one of the kindest people, had a great smile. And that full head of hair! He got older and his hair got thicker, but just a nice person to be around,” she said.
After his time at Virginia Union, he was a barber and cosmetology teacher in Caroline County. Rev. Dr. Bray was the pastor of several churches, served in several community organizations, helped start a daycare in Mechanicsville and even built and designed St James Baptist Church in Ruther Glen, Virginia.
“Everywhere I go and everywhere he and I would go, a student would go up to him and go, ‘hey, you taught me, if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have my business going. I wouldn’t be in the ministry, I wouldn’t have done this or that’, he explained.
Rev. Scott Bray plans to continue working with Johnson Rice and others to share his father’s story and legacy. He is currently writing a book about his father.
“In my dad’s legacy with the Chickahominy Baptist Association, one of my goals is [offer a scholarship] with some type of essay or something like that on the Richmond 34,” he said. “That’s why I’m here today because of him and all of the things that he did and the lives that he touched.”
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