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Flying Squirrels keep Richmond 34 Legacy alive

This weekend's events are flagship of far-reaching initiative
The Flying Squirrels hosted their first annual Richmond 34 Legacy Weekend in 2021, which included members of the Richmond 34 and their families. (Richmond Flying Squirrels)
September 16, 2022

On a Saturday morning in February, 62 years ago, a group of Black college students walked into Thalhimers department store in downtown Richmond, Virginia, sat down at the counter of its Richmond Room restaurant and -- just as they had every reason to expect -- were refused service and arrested.

On a Saturday morning in February, 62 years ago, a group of Black college students walked into Thalhimers department store in downtown Richmond, Virginia, sat down at the counter of its Richmond Room restaurant and -- just as they had every reason to expect -- were refused service and arrested.

Those 34 students were part of a nonviolent movement that included thousands of individuals across the South, as well as a couple hundred in the Virginia capital that same day. In addition to contributing to a national discourse, their action played a pivotal role in bringing social change to Richmond.

It was, the United Press International noted at the time, "the first mass arrest in the passive protests of segregated lunch counters in the [South]." The news was carried in papers as far away as Texas and California, in Iowa and New York.

The Richmond 34, as they came to be known, were jailed and convicted of trespassing. They appealed their conviction all the way to the United States Supreme Court, winning a GVR (grant, vacate, remand) order three years later -- a landmark victory in the civil rights movement.

But even before the legal issue was settled, the Richmond 34 played an instrumental role in effecting change through nonviolent protest in Virginia. Sit-ins that began that same week in February led to boycotts and picket lines, and, by the end of 1960, to the integration of Thalhimers and other downtown businesses. To this day, that sit-in and the efforts of its participants are an under-remembered part of the story of the struggle for equality in America.

That's part of what Richmond's Minor League team, the Giants-affiliated Double-A Flying Squirrels, is working to rectify with a multipronged initiative, with the second annual flagship event -- the Richmond 34 Legacy Weekend -- set for Sept. 16-17. While other facets of the initiative carry the activists' work and dreams into the real world in the 21st century, the upcoming weekend promotes the history of the Thalhimers sit-in and the changes that followed.

The Flying Squirrels offer a visual reminder of the Richmond 34 to anybody passing the stadium year-round.

Trey Wilson, the Flying Squirrels' director of communications and broadcaster, has encountered fans who heard about the Richmond 34 for the first time through the team's efforts. But it was not enough, Wilson and the rest of the front office staff felt, to stop at spreading awareness.

“When this was all first in the early stages of being discussed, it was a focal point that it’s not going to be a one-time thing," Wilson said. "It’s something that’s going to be impactful all year, every year for a long time."

For the Saturday and Sunday games, Flying Squirrels players will wear specially designed Richmond 34 Legacy jerseys, which will be auctioned off to raise money for Flying Squirrels Charities and the Richmond 34 Legacy Scholarship Fund.

Outfielder Sandro Fabian was among last year's players to wear the Richmond 34 Legacy jerseys.

Other aspects of the initiative are clear to anybody who comes to any game, and one of them is clear to anybody who even passes the ballpark from I-95 South or Arthur Ashe Boulevard. The Diamond features a mural by Andre Shank, reading "Richmond 34 Legacy," on the exterior facade of the stadium behind home plate. Richmond has also retired the No. 34, which is displayed prominently in the ballpark next to the only other number the franchise has retired -- Jackie Robinson's No. 42.

The team has also partnered with Elizabeth Johnson Rice -- a member of the Richmond 34 and lifelong social justice activist -- to create the Richmond 34 Legacy Campaign, which operates with the mission of promoting "justice, peace, racial equality and diversity by creating innovative and exciting educational opportunities that utilize relevant information from the past to help students understand the present with the purpose of empowering them to advocate for a better future for all people.”

“She’s done so much work over her entire lifetime helping to promote equality," Wilson said. "She’s made it her mission over the last several years to help make sure that the legacy of the Richmond 34 is honored. Now, she has the chance through the Flying Squirrels to share that message with a different audience.”

The initiative's scholarship funds will go to students at two historically Black universities -- Virginia Union University (where Johnson Rice and the other protesters arrested at Thalhimers were students, and where Martin Luther King Jr. had spoken at the beginning of 1960), and Virginia State University. Students from both those universities also have the chance to participate in another element of the Richmond 34 Legacy initiative -- the Career Advancement & Mentorship program, which is focused on "elevating more minorities into leadership positions throughout the professional baseball industry."

"We see the impacts every day. We have people now who came to us through that program who we’ve hired full-time," Wilson said. “We’ve had great students working with us this year while they’re getting a first-hand look at this industry and getting hands-on experience. The look and feel our front office has changed. The Career Advancement & Mentorship program is going to be helpful in the long run to the industry as a whole.”

Josh Jackson is an editor for Follow and interact with him on Twitter @JoshJacksonMiLB.