At its heart, Richmond has a tastefully restrained style about nearly everything it does. Those of us who know this town from the inside out probably take some of its enduring physical charm for granted. Yet, we do so knowing that our fair city’s pretty surface has an ugly story beneath it. Richmond’s best-known street, Monument […]
At its heart, Richmond has a tastefully restrained style about nearly everything it does. Those of us who know this town from the inside out probably take some of its enduring physical charm for granted. Yet, we do so knowing that our fair city’s pretty surface has an ugly story beneath it.
Richmond’s best-known street, Monument Avenue, with its stately mansions and row of statues, has been a lightning rod for acrimony in recent years, stemming largely from Richmond’s knee-jerk uneasiness with racial issues.
One hundred forty-two years after the end of the Civil War one is left to wonder what it would take to convince Richmonders on the two sides of Broad Street’s imaginary divide to recognize their common ground and let some dry-rotted expectations go.
In the late ’50s and early ’60s, when honest people of the Deep South saw the stark pictures – in national magazines and on television – of the shocking violence associated with desegregation, the hideous truth hit them in the face. For those who could manage it, change must have seemed vastly preferable to posing for more pictures of hell on earth.
Apprehensive white people who had been brought up as bigots had to agree with their restless black neighbors that change was inevitable and necessary. They might not have become pals overnight but they, blacks and whites, must have seen that they just couldn’t keep having riots in their streets.
However, in Richmond more restraint was evidenced. While that surely seemed like a blessing at the time, it may have come with a price.
Although the local white establishment stood fast in the shadow of the banner of Massive Resistance, it was less bombastic than it might have been in that time of stirred passions. Meanwhile, the determined black reform movement pinned its hopes on building a political organization with real clout – the Crusade for Voters; formed in 1956.
Typical of Richmond, both camps weren’t as demonstrative and overtly confrontational as their counterparts in other areas. Thus Richmond got through the volatile Civil Rights era without having to witness, firsthand, a lot of bloodshed in its streets. The most telling public confrontation was an orderly economic boycott, rather than a nightstick-wielding and open-fire-hose melee over access to schools or transportation.
Downtown lunch counters in the five-and-dimes and the big department stores actually had set policies in those days that denied service to blacks. Amazingly, this they did while inviting the very same people to shop freely in the rest of the store.
In 1960 a group of 34 black citizens – many were students – was busted for having the temerity to ask to be served lunch at Thalhimers’ lunch counter. The action was called a “sit-down strike” in the vernacular of the times. The group was charged with trespassing.
Subsequently, a picket line was thrown up around Thalhimers, organized by the Richmond Citizens Advisory Committee, a group working under the NAACP’s auspices. After months of stalemate, the store caved in and downtown lunch counters 86ed their whites-only policy.
Perhaps the success and civility of that boycott deluded Richmonders into thinking that they didn’t need to search their own hearts and minds for the prejudices that cloud vision. Although official policies were changed by the Thalhimers boycott, ironically, it may have failed to clearly dramatize the genuine need for people in Virginia’s capital city to go out of their way to see the other guy’s point. (more…)