THE RICHMOND 34
On February 20, 1960, Virginia Union University (VUU) students walked from the campus on Lombardy Street down Broad Street until they arrived at the shopping district along Broad and Grace Streets. Once there, they entered the “whites only” lunch counters of several drug stores, sat down, and asked for service. On that day, the students were refused service, but they quietly remained in their seats until each lunch counter closed.
Two days later on February 22, 1960, 200 VUU students marched from their campus to the Thalhimers Department store. They picketed around the store until 34 students entered the store. Some sat down at the lunch counter as others entered the Richmond Room. The students were asked to leave. When they refused, they were arrested for trespassing. This event marks one of the first mass arrests of the Civil Rights Movement. The students became known as the “Richmond 34”—a reference to their place in the Civil Rights Movement, breaking through the barriers of segregation in Richmond, Virginia. The Thalhimers store integrated its entire store facility within a year. The only reason they waited that long was because Thalhimers’ management insisted that Miller & Rhoads integrate at the same time. Thalhimers management team- led by William B. Thalhimer Jr.- became one of the early chief advocates for peaceful retail integration in the city.
Sit-ins were an integral part of the non-violent strategy of civil disobedience, an essential tool in the arsenal of strategies to end racial segregation in the United States. Beginning in 1958 Wichita, Kansas, the use of sit-ins spread. On February 1, 1960, the Greensboro Sit-In at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina launched a wave of anti-segregation sit-ins across the South and opened a national awareness of the depth of segregation in the nation. The media picked up the issue of sit-ins and covered it nationwide, beginning with lunch counters and spreading to other forms of public accommodation, including transport facilities, art galleries, beaches, parks, swimming pools, libraries, and even museums around the South. The result was the passage of one of the most sweeping acts of legislation in history, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2, 1964 mandating desegregation in public accommodations.
About the Richmond 34 Mural
Dominion Energy Center now stands in the former Thalhimers Department Store location. To honor this historic event, RPAA collaborated with public artist Hamilton Glass and Virginia Union University alumna Germany Ray to create a mural within the Genworth BrightLights Education Center that stands as a legacy wall for the Richmond 34. The mural, completed in November 2023 and unveiled to the public on February 22, 2024, is Phase 1 of RPAA’s work to commemorate this event.
Phase 2 will see the installation of a permanent art gallery featuring work by local professional artists. Following this installation, RPAA will work with local schools to feature student work on an annual, rotating basis. Their artwork will also be inspired by the Richmond 34 and their historic significance. A reception will be hosted to create an everlasting commemorative event. RPAA is actively fundraising for Phase II with the intention to unveil the new gallery on the anniversary of the sit-in in 2025. If you would like to support these efforts, you can make a designated gift through the link below.
Timeline of Important Events
February 22 – 34 Virginia Union University students held a sit-in at the Thalhimers department store and were arrested for trespassing.
After the sit-ins and boycott of Feb 1960, Thalhimers’ facilities were 80% integrated within one year and completely integrated in two years. All bathrooms, water fountains, and changing rooms on all 6 floors (including 3 restaurants) were reconfigured. The reason it took a year was due to the fact that Thalhimers refused to integrate until Miller & Rhoads agreed to do the same, which they did after 11 months of negotiations. William B. Thalhimer Jr., the CEO of Thalhimers, met with Webster Rhoads in the back of a car in their shared parking deck, so no one would hear their conversations. William Thalhimer Jr. said in an interview years later, “[Webster Rhoads and I] agreed that in December  we would issue an invitation to leaders of the black community for dinner in the Richmond Room. This was symbolic of our changing policy. After that, we integrated everything. Anyone could use restaurants, fitting rooms, bathrooms, fountains, etc. It took a year to make the transition.” The CEOs of Thalhimers and Miller & Rhoads both invited leaders from the black community to dine with them and their wives in the Richmond Room and Tea Room, signifying the integration of both stores.
In 1966, picket leader Rev HG Knight (a VUU alum) of Sixth Baptist Church presented William Thalhimer Jr. a Humanitarian Award acknowledging his personal involvement in race relations in RVA. William Thalhimer Jr. said it was one of the proudest moments of his life.
In 1967, Thalhimers hosted the heads of 20+ department stores, where executive Newt Hamblett said regarding integration, “There is no greater problem or challenge or opportunity facing us. Sufficient quantities of our precious time, our best efforts, and our valuable resources must be committed to this task. If these things are not done, we will be the big losers.”
February 22nd – 50th anniversary educational symposium and celebration (Sit In | Stand Out) held at the site of the former Thalhimers Department Store- now Dominion Energy Center for the Performing Arts. Historical Marker was erected at this location as well. This is when the group VUU students who participated in the sit-in were officially named the “Richmond 34.”
Valentine Museum exhibit:
Richmond Flying Squirrels legacy weekend: