Top to bottom: Frank Pinkston, one of the Thalhimers 34, is taken away by police following his arrest at the Richmond Room sit-in; protesters lined up outside the Richmond Room; picketing and boycotts were also employed to highlight the injustice of segregation. images courtesy Anderson Collection, Valentine Richmond History Center
On Feb. 22, 1960, Ford Tucker Johnson Jr. was an 18-year-old chemistry major in his sophomore year at Virginia Union University. He and his sister Elizabeth were among the many students who marched into Richmond's bustling downtown during the George Washington holiday sales, sat down at the for-whites-only Thalhimers lunch counter and changed history.
"We didn't know what to expect," Johnson recalls. "We'd all seen the pictures everyone else had seen, the water hoses, the beatings, the whole deal. Here we were in Richmond, the cradle of the Confederacy, where nothing like this had been tried."
Johnson, his sister and 32 others were arrested for trespassing after Thalhimers' store managers demanded that they leave.
Starting Feb. 18, Virginia Union University (VUU) will commemorate these events with lectures, services and performances. Additionally, VUU and the University of Richmond are hosting educational programs that culminate in a full day of presentations at Richmond CenterStage on Feb. 22.
On Feb. 1, 1960, the first of a wave of sit-ins throughout the South began in Greensboro, S.C. Sit-ins at Richmond's retailers and restaurants by VUU students on Feb. 22 were inspired by the nonviolent protests of Martin Luther King Jr., a frequent visitor to the VUU campus.
Johnson wasn't a stranger to these undertakings; growing up in Lawrenceville, where his dentist father headed the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he attended NAACP meetings from a young age. Still, a march into downtown Richmond involved taking things to another level. "We knew it would be very special, and very dangerous," he says.
The importance of the sit-in plan was reinforced by several days of civil-disobedience training that included getting yelled at, called names and spat upon by other students. Johnson says, "This was done to see who had a short fuse, to sort of weed out anybody who might cause a disturbance."
Some 500 VUU students walked from the campus on Lombardy Street into downtown. Entering Thalhimers wasn't unusual; African-Americans could shop there, but they couldn't eat alongside whites at the first-floor lunch counter or the fourth-floor Richmond Room restaurant.
Johnson and his sister went to the counter with 33 other students. As soon as they sat down, the young people confronted outright rage from whites. "They yelled at us, threw stuff at us. That was frightening. We didn't know how it would turn out."
When the students refused to leave the store, the police were called in. Officers, some with dogs, came to roust out the demonstrators and arrest them. They were put into a police van while supportive onlookers cheered, including VUU professors.
"They were hauled off to jail but didn't spend too much time there before they were bailed out," says VUU history professor Raymond P. Hylton, Ph.D, who is assisting in the commemoration's coordination.
Once released, the 34 students were celebrated at the Eggleston Hotel in Jackson Ward.
"I think everyone was just glad to see we still had our heads," Johnson says.
Shortly thereafter began the Campaign for Human Dignity, expanding the effort beyond students to include other members of the community, including some sympathetic whites, taking the campaign from sit-ins to boycotts and picketing,
Hylton explains, "The theme was: Don't buy where you could be arrested or where you can't eat. Pressure built by Christmastime, and one by one the stores gave up their racial policies. Make no bones about it, this ignited the end of segregation here."
Richmond police again arrested Johnson in April 1962 on the charge of an expired license plate. In court, he wouldn't follow the judge's order to sit in the black section. He stepped aside and stood by the bench. Johnson was fined $20 for the license and convicted of contempt. The appeal of Johnson's sentence went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in April 1963 overturned courtroom segregation. Two months later, the high court overturned the trespassing convictions of the "Thalhimers 34."
Johnson heard that his contempt conviction had been overturned from reporters in Ghana, where he served in the Peace Corps. He graduated from Harvard Law School and is today president of the Koba Institute, a Silver Spring, Md.-based service provider for disadvantaged children with emotional or behavioral problems.