Moments after Jamon Phenix delivered a speech that brought his fellow Virginia Union University students — united in disappointment with Virginia’s embattled governor — to their feet, Elizabeth Johnson Rice had to clarify something.

Phenix, the head of VUU’s student body, had asked Gov. Ralph Northam not to attend Thursday’s event at the university honoring a group of 34 former students who protested segregation. Johnson Rice, the Richmond 34’s leader, said Northam should have been there.

“How can you reconcile something if you’re not there to reconcile it?” she said. “You can’t rush to judgment.”

Northam bowed to the request from the students at the historically black college to not attend the celebration, which Phenix said would be a distraction.

Instead, the audience consisted mostly of community members, and students who wore all black in a display of solidarity and lingering hurt over Northam’s admission this month that he’d worn blackface in the 1980s.

“The mandate was clear. He heard our message,” said Phenix, the president of VUU’s Student Government Association. “We are not saying the governor should not come. We are simply saying that he should reschedule his visit for a later date in the spring so that we can have real and true conversation around race and reconciliation.”

Northam has largely remained out of the public eye since a racist photo was discovered on his 1984 medical school yearbook page. He has denied he is in the yearbook photo but confessed to wearing blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume. He was originally scheduled to attend the VUU service as the first stop on what the school initially described as his “apology tour,” but after Phenix’s letter, Northam dropped out on Wednesday. The governor said he plans to visit the campus this spring.

Without Northam, about 200 people gathered inside Coburn Hall on the Virginia Union campus Thursday to celebrate Johnson Rice and 33 other university students who, in 1960, came downtown and went to the whites-only lunch counter at the Thalhimers department store. After being denied service, they stayed until the store closed.

Two days later, they were arrested and charged with trespassing. Their convictions were eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, a significant victory for the civil rights movement.

“We made a difference that day in desegregating restaurants and other facilities that served the public,” Johnson Rice told the crowd.

While Thursday’s event commemorated the Richmond 34, it also included a plea from former Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones to improve inner-city education and housing and remove gerrymandered voting districts as part of racial reconciliation.

“Our problems are historical, but our problems are systemic,” said Jones, who has said Northam should resign. “It’s about blackface, but it’s about so much more.”

He added: “Those who have been the offender cannot lead in the process of reconciliation.”

Jones said, “it would have been nice for [Northam] to be here” but supported the idea of listening to the students.

Phenix stood by the letter in a news conference after the service and shot down the notion that it was a missed opportunity to have the discussions about race he’s asking for.

“Let’s not overshadow the presence of the Richmond 34,” he said.

“We are tomorrow,” Phenix said during his speech. “We will speak truth to power.”

The governor, who has resisted mass calls for his resignation, will host Johnson Rice and other members of the Richmond 34 at the Executive Mansion on Friday.

Johnson Rice said she’s working with the Student Government Association to ask specific questions of Northam at the breakfast and relay comments from VUU students.

Also Friday, Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, will present a resolution commemorating the Richmond 34 in the House of Delegates. A panel discussion on the VUU campus about the protest is scheduled for 11 a.m. in the Claude G. Perkins Living and Learning Center.

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Education Reporter

Justin Mattingly covers K-12 schools and higher education. A northern New York native and a Syracuse University alumnus, he's worked at the RTD since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter at @jmattingly306.

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