California native recalls discrimination, jail time in Virginia
By Nancy Gross
Things were different in 1960, especially in the South, where the movement toward civil rights was slow and discrimination was overt. Courageous people had to take a stand — or a sit — for fairness.
As part of Black History Month in February, Ojai resident, Gloria Claudette Grinnell returned to Richmond, Va., to mark the 50th anniversary of the downtown sit-ins in which she participated as a Virginia Union University student.
Grinnell had grown up in San Francisco and San Diego. Discrimination in her youth in California, she said, was covert. “The South was different, quite different.” Richmond had been the capital of the Confederacy, and Grinnell, though she had experienced racial slurs and stereotypes, was not used to the way the community’s black people were repeatedly spoken down to. She didn’t fully understand their difficulty speaking up.
The college, however, was an all-black school, and Grinnell said it was the first place she learned any black history. Her teachers and classmates called her “California.”
Martin Luther King Jr. had spoken to humanities classes at VUU. His message of nonviolent resistance rang in the years of two VUU ministry students, Charles M. Sherrod, now a college professor in Albany, Ga., and the late Frank G. Pinkston. They recruited students in the cafeteria to take some action.
For three days, hundreds of dressed-up VUU students went into downtown Richmond and sat down at department store lunch counters where only whites were served. In stores like Thalhimers, Woolworth’s and Grant’s, Grinnell said “You also couldn’t use the facilities. You couldn’t try on clothes.”
The students were denied service, but refused to leave.
The first attempts only caused the lunch counters to close for the day. The arrest on the third day was what the organizers were looking for, to call attention to the inequality in such a way that Jim Crow laws would come under legal scrutiny.
It was the holiday for George Washington’s birthday, Feb. 22, 1960, and 34 students, who came to be called the Richmond 34, were arrested at the Thalhimers lunch counter.
Grinnell said, after hours in jail, “The vice president of religion put his house up to bail us out.”
The students inspired others to picket, boycott and protest; within a year the stores opened their lunch counters to everyone. Three years later NAACP lawyers won a suit in the Supreme Court, and the arrests of the Richmond 34 were called unconstitutional.
These were important birth pains leading to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.