'Richmond 34' commemorate anniversary, get together for first time since sit-in

Published: Feb. 22, 2010 at 4:44 PM EST
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By Sabrina Squire - bio | email
Posted by Phil Riggan - email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - They took a stand by "sitting- in" and changed the lives of millions.

After their release, the so called  "Richmond 34" went back to college, graduated and got on with their lives.

Now these Virginia Union University alums -- doctors, lawyers, judges, executives and educators -- are celebrating a long awaited reunion.

They were honor students, campus leaders, bright young stars in the midst of dark, disturbing times.

"Racial prejudice, Jim Crow, poll taxes, sitting on the back of the bus, not being able to eat...I don't want to repeat that history," said Rev. Leroy M. Bray, a participant in the Thalhimer sit-in.

Still, February 22, 1960, not all of these students planned on a field trip downtown.

Elizabeth Rice -- then Elizabeth Johnson and 19 at the time -- told her parents she and her brother Ford would not demonstrate.

"Before I knew it, we were there in front of Thalhimer's," she said. "I said 'okay, I have marched down here, I have picketed, now I'm sitting at the table and I told my parents I wasn't going to get involved.'"

"We were called names, a few students were spat upon," Rev. Bray said.

"They said 'We're going to arrest you if you don't leave,'" Rice said. "Then I saw the dogs, I saw the German shepherd dogs."

"I was the first one arrested on the first floor," Rev. Bray said. "They unloaded us off the paddy wagon, carried us in, booked us.

"We were in a mass holding area...doing what?  Talking, praying, singing. I didn't know how I was going to get out of jail -- That was a very sobering moment."

The black community bailed them out and after almost a year of boycotts and picketing, Thalhimer's and other downtown Richmond businesses granted equal access.

"We never celebrated -- This is the first time, we've been together," Rice said.

For years, Rice has led the drive for a class reunion and recognition of the students achievement.  She's appeared on network television and organized a rally four years ago where she bonded with Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt, granddaughter of the former store owner.

"Brought tears to my eyes," Rice said. "There was a culmination of this whole thing right there. We've become good friends."

Elizabeth Rice and Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt, are writing about their experiences.

Rice is currently an educator in the Maryland public school system, but makes frequent trips to her alma mater.

"They ought to be proud to come to this college just because of what we did," Rice said.

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