Ruth Nelson Tinsley was standing at North Sixth and East Broad streets in downtown Richmond when a police officer told her to move.
Three times the officer ordered the 58-year-old wife of a local dentist to move on, and each time she asked why without getting an answer. After the third exchange, the officer arrested Tinsley for ignoring his order.
“I’ve been standing in the same spot for years and years,” Tinsley later said. “I didn’t see why I had to move.”
Tinsley’s arrest took place Feb. 23, 1960, outside Thalhimers department store, the scene of sit-ins at the store’s lunch counter and picket lines on the surrounding streets. As one of downtown’s most prominent retail businesses, Thalhimers had become the local focus in a nationwide campaign to end racial segregation at public eating facilities.
Although Tinsley carried no picket sign at the time of her arrest, she held a handbill that read: “Don’t buy where you cannot eat, and turn your charge plate in.” When ordered to move, she was standing near a picket line.
Locally, Tinsley’s arrest and later conviction on a charge of “refusing to move when told to do so by a police officer” made a profound impression because of Tinsley’s prominence in the community.
Her husband, Jesse M. Tinsley, had been president of the Richmond chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People since 1931 and was the first president of the Virginia State Congress of the NAACP. Ruth Tinsley, a senior adviser to the NAACP’s Youth Group, worked in partnership with her husband on civil-rights issues.
Nationally, Tinsley’s arrest made an impact thanks to photographs taken that day. In the photos, two policemen lift a resolute, well-dressed Tinsley by her arms, carrying her away from Thalhimers’ Broad Street entrance.
The March 7, 1960, issue of Life magazine featured one of those images above a caption that said officers with a police dog were “manfully hustling 58-year-old Mrs. Ruth Tinsley into custody.” The sight of Tinsley’s treatment helped make the harshness of the civil-rights struggle everyone’s reality.
A month after her arrest, Tinsley again made news when she spoke at an NAACP fundraising rally in Cleveland, urging black consumers to use their collective purchasing power as leverage in the battle for equal treatment by businesses. “We are going to bring one store at a time to its knees,” Tinsley said, emphasizing that economic boycotts could accomplish what appeals to social conscience could not.
The method Tinsley advocated worked with greater speed than the legislative and judicial systems could muster. In Richmond, pickets and boycotts ceased less than a year after they began when Thalhimers and Miller & Rhoads, the two major downtown department stores of the time, announced in January 1961 an end to segregation at all their eating facilities. Most other local businesses that had not done so soon followed suit.