Monday, February 22, 2010

Be the Change You Want to See

Today was the 50th anniversary of the day that 34 Virginia Union University students staged a sit-in at Thalhimer's lunch counter to protest segregation. Richmond Center Stage was unveiling an historic marker to commemorate the occasion, complete with official speeches and one of the original Union 34 members speaking. It was something I wanted to witness.

About an hour before the event, the rain began. It occurred to me, did I really want to go stand in the cold rain for the sake of a marker? Staring at the steady rain, I wanted to smack myself. These 34 students had been willing to step up and be arrested to call attention to injustice and I was worried about a little rain? I put on my raincoat, grabbed my umbrella and headed down to 6th and Broad to pay my respects to people more courageous than me. As Shakespeare wrote and Center Stage's Jeff Sadler quoted, "What is a city but its people?" This person needed to experience this event.

Due to the weather, remarks were kept brief, except for those by Elizabeth Johnson Rice, the representative of the Union 34. She told of trying to start a commemorative march for the event back in 2004; her starting point was a phone call to the Richmond Police. She told them who she was and that she'd marched and gotten arrested for it in 1960. "Can I start a march again?" she asked. And, lo and behold, the policeman told her it was a great idea. It was at that march that she'd fortuitously met Elizabeth Thalhimer Smart, the granddaughter of the man who'd owned Thalhimer's at the time of the sit-in, and the woman who , with Rice, unveiled the marker today.

Standing in the crowd under a sea of black Center Stage umbrellas during the presentation, a man told me he liked my floral umbrella. I thanked him and told him it was just a thrift store find. "It's a happy umbrella," he told me. A happy umbrella for acknowledging a happy occasion: the progress made in Richmond toward a more equal society.

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