Richmond 34 anniversary brings alumna back to roots
Marcos Chappell and Catherine MacDonald
Contributing Writer and Managing Editor
When Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt was a graduate student at VCU, she made contact with another Elizabeth: Elizabeth Johnson Rice, one of the “Richmond 34.”
In 1960, 34 Virginia Union University students, now known as the Richmond 34, were arrested after conducting a sit-in at the then-segregated restaurant at the Thalhimer’s department store in downtown Richmond. The event is credited with breaking down significant racial barriers in the city.
Smartt, the granddaughter of William B. Thalhimer Jr., CEO of Thalhimers at the time of the sit-in, was writing her thesis in pursuit of her master of arts in English in 2005 when she contacted Rice. The civil rights activist helped Smartt learn more about the history of her ancestors and their store, and the two have corresponded ever since.
“Over the years I’ve attended (Rice’s Richmond 34) commemorations and she said, ‘When we get to the 50th anniversary, you have to help me plan,’ ” Smartt said.
Monday marked the 50th anniversary of the event, and Rice kept her word.
What started as a small-scale effort grew when the two Elizabeths began collaborating with Richmond CenterStage and VUU, which were also planning events. All the groups’ planning culminated in a six-day commemoration event titled “Sit-in/Stand Up” between Richmond CenterStage, former site of Thalhimers, and the VUU campus.
Important African-American leaders throughout the country came to Richmond to pay their respect to the 34. NAACP CEO and President Benjamin Todd Jealous and co-owner of BET Sheila Johnson were some of the guest speakers on hand during the week.
“We have to understand, we are standing on the shoulders of giants,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t just Martin Luther King. Richmond 34 laid down the foundation for all of us.”
The celebration came to a close Monday night with performances by VCU faculty Scott Putman’s Amaranth Dance Company, which is made up in part by VCU alumni, and R&B singer John Legend at the Carpenter Center.
“It’s an important thing to remember, some people underestimate the importance of history, and commemorating the legacy of important people,” Legend said.
Smartt said the celebration was “an incredibly powerful experience.”
“Everyone I met had something to tell me that I hadn’t known before,” Smartt said. “I got to meet members of the original 34; all of their stories were so compelling.”
Smart said the Richmond 34 held peaceful protests and people forget about them because they were not violent.
“It’s a shame that … the fact that these were peaceful kind of erased them from history,” Smartt said. “I was honored to represent my family and honored to be a part of it.”