For Richmonders, the corner of 6
always meant one thing: department store. Since their openings in 1842 and 1885 respectively, Thalhimers and Miller & Rhoads were two of Richmond’s biggest downtown shopping landmarks, expanding to fill up whole city blocks and making their name known around the region as shopping destinations[i][ii].
But on February 20 , 1960, everything began to change for the blossoming department stores. At 1:30 p.m. students from Virginia Union University brought the sit-in movement that had been occurring in other cities like Greensboro and Roanoke, from the newspaper clippings to the stools of three of the four eating establishments of Thalhimers[iii]. This moment along with a larger sit in days later at Thalhimers spurred on a large-scale boycott of both Thalhimers and Miller & Rhoads that would last almost a year. While the selective buying and the boycott of the stores came to a close with integration, its effects would be felt until both stores closed their doors in the early 1990’s.
Along with the increasingly rapid exodus of white people out of downtown Richmond to suburbs outfitted with their own shopping centers and increased urban racial tensions, came the decline of the two great urban department stores. The economic boycott of both Thalhimers and Miller & Rhoads that happened as a result of the sit ins at Thalhimers in February of 1960 were the first step in the demise of the flagship stores of two of Richmond’s biggest name department stores.
In 1840, William Thalhimer landed in the Port of New Orleans from Le Havre, France, and after a trip up the Mississippi in 1842 to Petersburg, Virginia, he made his way to Richmond and opened Wm. Thalhimer’s Dry Good and
Clothing Store on 17 Street at the Old Market[iv]. Meanwhile in 1885, along with America’s first streetcar line, Richmond also welcomed three businessmen from Reading, Pennsylvania, and the opening of a 22 by 75 foot store at 117 East Broad Street known as Miller, Rhoads & Gerhart[v]. The two small one room stores would soon move within a block of one another on Broad Street and become competitors, staring each other down across Sixth Street for decades. While the stores were competitive, they also worked together, sharing a parking ramp on Grace Street in the 1940s and investing in the Sixth Street Marketplace in 1984 to revitalize the downtown branches[vi]. Both businesses had similar stories, expanding into the suburbs and other cities throughout the region in the 1960s, being bought out and merging with other companies in the 1970s and 80s, and finally closing in the 90s. Both Miller and Rhoads and Thalhimers had devout customers and strong business plans in 1960 and neither knew what was in store for them as they awoke on February 20 , 1960.
General Manager, William Thalhimer had just gotten home for lunch when he got the call, “Mr. Billy, we don’t know what’s going on down here, but the whole soda fountain by the sixth street entrance is totally taken over by black students”[vii]. On the afternoon of February 20 , 1960, the sit-in movement that had taken over Greensboro, North Carolina came to Richmond. According to the Richmond Daily Dispatch, “Thalhimers officials met with the student leaders and attempted to persuade them to leave” and within 45 minutes all of the students had left. Thalhimers closed their eating establishments, but went on with business as usual for the rest of the day. They were one of six stores protested that day, but none of the students were arrested[viii]. The students, mostly from Virginia Union University, a black college, did not wait long to return, emphatically doing so two days later, on George Washington’s birthday. While 200 students marched downtown from campus on Saturday, 500 came back on Tuesday and about 75 attempted to find a seat at one of Thalhimers eating establishments. After being asked to leave, many students’ gripped textbooks, some held American flags above their heads. After professors from the University arrived and talked to the students they left and walked to the police department, where 34 students were booked for trespassing[ix]. While the protests on Broad Street seemed peaceful, the students, The Richmond 34, as they would later become known, remember the fear they felt as people were spitting on them and calling them names. Elizabeth Johnson Rice, a 20-year-old Virginia Union student, “remembers a brown blur of police uniforms and the nose of a German shepherd at her legs” [x]. After the students were whisked away to jail, the restaurants reopened and business went on as usual, but the protests did not stop. Thalhimers and Miller and Rhoads were the targets of selective buying boycotts and picketing for almost a year until stores fully integrated[xi].
The city’s populations were at a standoff. As white people continued to flee the city towards the newly developed suburbs, African Americans began to demand the same rights as their white counterparts throughout the city. The owners of Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers were thrown into the middle of a racial battle much larger than just their department stores. William Thalhimer saw integration as necessary, but feared losing the majority of his business, which came from whites. Because of the anti-Semitism his family had faced as Jewish storeowners since the store opened in 1842, he saw integration as crucial, stating that, “People are people under God. We didn’t decide to be Jewish. No one decides to be black or white”[xii]. But it was a business and they, “were trying to figure out how to integrate without ruining our whole patronage. Our reputation and business were at stake”[xiii]. 1960 marked the only year that Thalhimers went down in sales and earnings in the history of the company[xiv]. It was a scary time not only for business, but for their families, with threats coming daily to their wives and children[xv]. The Vice-President of Virginia Union, Allix James remembers Thalhimer being, “very very sympathetic,” going on to say that he is, “pretty sure that in his heart he did not go along with [segregation]”[xvi]. But, in the end both Thalhimers and Miller & Rhoads were forced to integrate by the mayor’s biracial study committee and their downtown stores would never return to the status they had been at prior to 1960.
The civil rights sit-ins and boycotts of 1960 changed the flagship stores of of Thalhimers and Miller & Rhoads forever. The boycott scared the general manager William Thalhimer, “You’re damn right I was scared…I was literally scared to death”[xviii]. The boycotts signaled the beginning of the end for the downtown flagship stores of both Thalhimers and Miller & Rhoads. Thalhimer said, “We took a giant drop in sales that year and we never really, really built that back”[xix]. After the sit-ins, “white flight” to the suburbs increased greatly. White people feared integration and believed the suburbs were a safe haven from African Americans. While the suburbs continued to expand, downtown fell into a spiraling descent it is still crawling out of today[xx]. Suburban Richmond grew by 24.3% in the 1960’s[xxi]. Both Thalhimers and Miller & Rhoads responded to this and begun expanding into the new suburbs to cater to their white clientele. In 1960 Miller & Rhoads opened a store in Willow Lawn and Thalhimers expanded into the West End as well[xxii]. With the expansion both stores practically forgot about their downtown stores because the suburban branches were out gaining them by more and more every year[xxiii].
As the 1960’s progressed the notion of one downtown department store where consumers could buy anything they needed was becoming less popular as more suburban malls were being constructed. In 1967 Miller & Rhoads followed the trend and merged with Julius Garfinckel & Co. specialty stores[xxiv]. Eleven years later Thalhimers followed suit, selling the company to Carter Hawley Hale Stores [xxv]. The decline of downtown continued throughout the 1970’s and in a last ditch effort to save downtown, mayor Henry Marsh created the Richmond Renaissance project in 1982[xxvi]. The centerpiece of the plan was The Sixth Street Marketplace, a suburban shopping mall that would span 6 street and connect Miller & Rhoads with Thalhimers. Everyone was hopeful, developer James W. Rouse said, that “Life in Richmond will be transformed” and William B. Thalhimer Jr. said it was, “a guarantee for another 143 years” [xxvii]. The marketplace, however, was too little to late for what was already a sinking ship of stores. Miller & Rhoads went into bankruptcy in 1989 and on January 19 , 1990, closed its doors for good[xxviii]. Across the street the flagship store of Thalhimers closed its doors in February of 1992[xxix]. The clock had finally struck midnight on Richmond’s two Cinderella department stores that had grown from one-room shops to regional enterprises.
When driving down Broad Street in 2011, no one would know that only 51 years ago the sit-in that brought a movement to Richmond had occurred in a massive department store where the Richmond Centerstage Theatre now sits. On that heralded ground 34 students sat down and refused to get up, clinching American flags in fear that police dogs would attack them. The sit-ins and boycotts that would follow forever changed the face of Broad Street and was a factor in the decline of the flagship stores of Miller & Rhaods and Thalhimers. Two businesses that grew up together from small shops just trying to make enough to get by in the new south after the Civil War, to big businesses with thousands of employees, hit a roadblock on February 20 , 1960 when the students of Virginia Union University brought the civil rights movement to Richmond, Virginia