An iconic photograph that dramatically contradicted Richmond’s genteel segregationist reputation during the Civil Rights demonstrations of 1960 was snapped not by an Associated Press photojournalist, as widely believed, but by a little-known Richmond Professional Institute (now VCU) student named Malcolm Carpenter. A photography editor for the school’s newspaper, called the Proscript, Carpenter just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
On Feb. 22, 1960, 34 African-American Virginia Union University students were arrested for trespassing in downtown Richmond when they sat at the whites-only Broad Street Thalhimers’ Department Store restaurant in a protest originally called a “sitdown” then later changed to “sit-in.” The next day, Ruth E. Tinsley, wife of former Richmond NAACP President Dr. J.M. Tinsley and a senior adviser to the NAACP’s Youth Group, arrived downtown at Thalhimers to pay a bill, unaware that picketing was occurring in protest of the previous day’s arrests.
“I was waiting for a lady who promised to meet me there, and I (was) standing out of the way, so as not to block the street,” Tinsley told Ruth Jenkins, a reporter for the Richmond newspaper The Afro-American.
She added that she had been handed a leaflet by someone that read, “Don’t buy where you can’t eat.” She then decided against entering the store, and waited on the sidewalk.
She was approached by Richmond police officer E. L. Nichols, who asked her to keep moving. Tinsley reportedly told Nichols that she did not see the need to move when there were others also standing nearby.
Nichols said he asked her three times to move on, “in a voice loud enough for her to understand even if she had been hard of hearing.” When Tinsley still refused to move, he arrested her for loitering and not obeying police orders. Another officer with a police dog assisted, leading her to a squad car across the street.
“I am not a lawbreaker,” Tinsley told the Afro-American, after she was convicted and fined $10. “And I just couldn’t understand why the officer wanted me to move. I thought I had the right to ask him why.”
Proscript photography editor Malcolm Carpenter, taking a break from shooting RPI student council meetings and May Queen candidates, happened to be in the right place.
“Since I was behind them, I moved around them to their left as they reached the corner,” he said. “I then swung fully around in front of them as they began to walk across the street.”
About halfway across, Mrs. Tinsley suddenly sat down.
“The two officers were surprised (by this),” according to Carpenter. “They then lifted her, and in a series of lifts and pauses carried her across the street.”
Nichols testified that after walking halfway across Broad Street, Tinsley told him she was not going to walk anymore and dropped down — a claim disputed by Tinsley, who told the court that in times of fear or fright, her back tended to spasm, and she slumped only after they reached the sidewalk.
The photo Carpenter took of the scene was quickly picked up by United Press International, who said it was a “bell ringer,” or “high priority.” It was published in several national newspapers and the Proscript on March 4, 1960. It subsequently ran in the March 7 issue of Life magazine, in the March 10 issue of Jet magazine and the May 1960 issue of Ebony magazine, with credit to Wide World (a photo news service) instead of to Carpenter.
The picture changed the dynamic of Richmond’s Civil Rights movement. This was no young college student, but a 59-year-old, respected female member of the black community being manhandled across Broad Street. Suddenly Richmond’s genteel segregationist reputation drew unwanted comparisons with more intense Deep South hotspots like Selma and Birmingham.
The picture galvanized the movement, and within one year not just Thalhimers, but Woolworth’s, Grants, Murphy’s and other downtown lunch counters integrated.
A Falls Church, Virginia native and 1958 graduate of George Mason High School, Carpenter was not just the Proscript photo editor but also an aspiring filmmaker, who shot a Super-8mm Civil War epic in 1956 as a high school sophomore titled “The Battle of Falls Church.” In 1960 he was the recipient of a VMFA Visual Arts Fellowship, and in 1961 left RPI to work in a succession of photography-related positions.
“I still am in awe of Ms. Tinsley and how she stood her ground,” Carpenter said. “(She) was a Rosa Parks … she knew that she was doing the right thing.”