RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia Union University held a chapel service on Thursday honoring the Richmond 34, a group of alumni who took part in a Civil Rights sit-in 59 years ago.
The Richmond 34 was a group of VUU students who conducted a sit-in at Thalhimers department store on February 22,1960.
"The anniversary of your justice and standing for the people of Richmond and black people around the world," said Dr. Hakim J. Lucas, VUU President & CEO, when he presented one of the members with a citation for the group.
The 34 were praised for their efforts in ending segregation and speakers urged the VUU students in attendance to follow their example when addressing issues facing minority communities today.
"We need some modern Richmond 34 folks who will decide not to be hear no evil, see no evil complacent people," said Dr. Dwight C. Jones, former mayor of Richmond. "We need some folks who will be willing to speak truth to power. The truth of the matter is that there are issues that need to be addressed."
The event, called "Faith, Identity, & Social Justice" was as notable for who was there as for who was not.
Several members of the Richmond 34 were in attendance, but Virginia Governor Ralph Northam was not. He announced Wednesday night that he would skip the service at the request of VUU’s Student Government Association.
The university announced that Northam would attend the service and said it was a part of his "reconciliation tour" after his blackface scandal.
At the start of the month, it was revealed that on Northam's medical school yearbook page, there was a photo of two men, one in blackface and the other in KKK robes. Northam initially apologized for the photo, but then said he was neither man in the picture, while at the same time admitting that he did put shoe polish on his face in 1984 while taking part in a Michael Jackson dance contest in San Antonio.
"Come another time. Let's have real conversation about race and reconciliation and let's not overshadow the presence of the Richmond 34," said Jamon K. Phenix, President of the VUU SGA, after the service when asked about why he requested Northam not come. He added that the governor is welcome in the spring time to have those conversations. "The conversations at clear. We have to have a conversation around education in underserved communities. We have to have conversations around voting rights."
And while the VUU students were praised for taking a stand on Northam's appearance, some, including members of the Richmond 34 felt the governor should have attended.
"You need two people to come together to reconcile and I think this would have been a good opportunity to have dialogue and as a teaching tool," said Elizabeth Johnson Rice, one of the Richmond 34 coordinators. "We will have a dialogue. We want to have a forum here at Virginia Union with the students involved, with the Richmond 34 involved."
Rice added she will start that conversation with Northam on Friday when the governor hosts the Richmond 34 at the executive mansion for breakfast.