It was a crisp but sunny February morning for a media gathering along the right field foul line at The Diamond. The gathering was emotional for a few reasons: The Diamond had been closed for the entire 2020 season due to the onset of COVID-19, and the Richmond community was only beginning to recover from its most intense racial reckoning since the Civil Rights era of the sixties.
Marcus-David Peters Circle, where the statue of Robert E. Lee once stood, the epicenter of Richmond’s community gatherings, and the site of horrendous police violence just six months before, was less than two miles from the Richmond Flying Squirrels’ home on Arthur Ashe Boulevard.
This was the backdrop where Todd Parnell – many of us know him as Parney – took to the podium to make an announcement that would help forge a new path for community engagement for the Flying Squirrels. “We are not just a baseball team. We are much more,” Parney announced, getting emotional himself.
Next, Parney talked about the Richmond 34, the Virginia Union students who were arrested in 1960 following a sit-in-protest at the whites-only lunch counter of Thalhimers Department Store in downtown Richmond. The heroic actions of the Richmond 34 helped change the fabric of our city and influence the 1964 Civil Rights Act. During the media event, Parent introduced the the pillars of the Richmond Flying Squirrels Legacy Campaign: the retirement of the No 34 by the Flying Squirrels, a career advancement and mentorship program with Virginia State University and Virginia Union University (two HBCUs in the area), Richmond 34 education and community outreach, led by ambassador Elizabeth Johnson-Rice (one of the Richmond 34), the Richmond 34 Legacy mural at The Diamond by artist Andre Shank, the launch of the Richmond 34 Legacy Scholarship Fund, the Richmond 34 Legacy Weekend to honor local community heroes.
Protests and Demonstrations and Why They Matter
George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, and shortly after, people across the country, along with many Richmonders took to the streets in protest. In astonishment, Squirrels’ executive Anthony Oppermann watched the nightly scenes unfold on Monument Avenue. 1700 Monument Avenue ultimately became the unofficial location of the modern-day movement. At that location, the city’s most prominent symbol of racial division stood: an over 60-foot bronze monument of Confederate Civil War General Robert E. Lee.
“I think the early genesis of our Legacy Campaign to honor the Richmond 34 was in reaction to what we saw in our backyard,” said Oppermann, who is now the assistant general manager for the Squirrels. “We always want to be where our community is, and we saw that our community was hurting. We [the Squirrels] had to look internally and figure out how to be a part of the solution,” he said.
Who Is Elizabeth Johnson-Rice?
A common misconception is that Elizabeth Johnson-Rice is fearless. “I consider myself a brave woman, but I am not without fear,” Johnson-Rice told me during a phone conversation. She shared her emotions in the wake of the response to the sit-in protest she took part in at Thalhimers Department Store on February 22, 1960.
“When I saw the dogs at the Thalhimers that day, fear existed. The police dogs and the water hose were scary because I saw on TV how the police used their dogs and the hose to terrorize people,” Johnson-Rice said. “But I knew what we were doing was right. And we were prepared. Dr. King had come to Virginia Union to train us in non-violent protest. He motivated us. There were several training sessions, and by that February, we were as prepared as possible.”
What occurred at Thalhimers would help lead Richmond to racial integration. Thirty-four Richmonders, most of them students at Virginia Union University, were arrested for peacefully protesting segregation at Thalhimers: Elizabeth Johnson-Rice was among them. Because of their brve actions, all Thalhimers stores were integrated by the end of 1960, and the actions of these young people in Richmond helped spark the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
In 2020, when Johnson-Rice got a call from someone who called himself Parney, she was confused. She didn’t know if this “Parney man” was legit. After her son checked him out online, Johnson-Rice still wondered why the baseball executive would try to contact her. When they spoke, Parney told Johnson-Rice he wanted to pick her up and take her to the Diamond. Somewhat reluctantly, Johnson-Rice agreed.
“Parney took me to a team room in the Diamond where a small group had gathered,” she said. “He asked me to tell the group the story of the Richmond 34,” Johnson-Rice recalled. “So, I told the story with as much passion and enthusiasm as possible. It was rather emotional,” Johnson-Rice remembered.
After the story, Parney looked at the primarily white group gathered there, and said: Do you see why we have to tell this story in Richmond?
Parney told Johnson-Rice that the Squirrels would help elevate the story by adding a Richmond 34 mural to the top of The Diamond, in addition to finding other ways to honor the Richmond 34 during the season.
Opperman, who is white, said although he and Parney cannot speak from a position of personal experience, they can acknowledge their platform. “We can utilize our platform to elevate the community voices that could promote healing,” said Oppermann. “When we looked at our history in Richmond, we discovered the story of the Richmond 34. And we believe there is no better story to tell than the Richmond 34; and no better ambassador than Elizabeth Johnson-Rice.”
Impacting Young People and Students Today
When Carnie Bragg walks through the doors of the Diamond to go to work, he recognizes that he is in a unique position.
“You don’t notice it much here [with the Flying Squirrels] because everyone treats me like family,” said Bragg, the group hospitality manager for the Squirrels. “But last year, I had the honor of attending the Eastern League winter meetings, and it was there that I noticed that I was the only Black person in the room,” Bragg recalled. “It was kind of shocking,” he said.
Bragg, along with Kayce Battle, hospitality and merchandise assistant, and Michael Evans, food and beverage manager, are full-time employees of the Flying Squirrels. All in their twenties, they are also graduates of Virginia State University and alumni of the career advancement and mentorship program, one of several initiatives announced by the Flying Squirrels in February 2021.
Marisa Greenhow had never heard of the Richmond 34 before her college advisor at Charles City High School told her about the Richmond 34 scholarship. She was inspired when she researched the scholarship and heard the story of Elizabeth Johnson-Rice and her courageous classmates. “The obstacles that the Richmond 34 overcame inspired me to overcome my obstacles as a first-generation college student,” Greenhow told me via email.
As the inaugural winner of the Richmond 34 scholarship, Greenhow is using the $5,000 to help her pursue a degree in marketing. She hopes to be a marketing manager after she graduates. “I am very grateful to have been awarded the Richmond 34 scholarship, not only because it helped me financially, but because of the legacy of the Richmond 34. I am glad the Richmond 34 are getting the continued positive acknowledgment and publicity they deserve for their courageous acts.”
And The Legacy Campaign Continues
As the Flying Squirrels enter their third season since announcing their pledge to tell the story of the Richmond 34, their passion and commitment remain unwavering. Last season, the Squirrels were named a team captain of The Nine, the inaugural, Black-community-focused outreach platform launched by Minor League Baseball (MiLB) specifically designed to honor and celebrate the historic impact numerous Black baseball pioneers made on the sport, provide new opportunities for youth baseball and softball participation, further diversify the business of baseball, and embrace millions of passionate fans throughout MiLB’s 120 communities nationwide.
In part, because of the Richmond 34 legacy campaign, the Squirrels won MiLB’s 2022 CommUNITY Champion Award. “The Squirrels have helped more than any other organization to appropriately recognized the Richmond 34,” said Elizabeth Johnson-Rice, who accepted the title of community ambassador.
Last school year, Rice, who is in her eighties and uses a walker to get around, spent a week at Swift Creek Elementary School with Squirrels’ community manager Bailey Johnson, telling the story of the Richmond 34 to the school’s seventh-grade class. “I’ve told Parney to use me as much as he can. We lose members of our group every year, so now is the time for us to help in any way we can.”
Carnie Bragg and Kayce Battle are planning front-office professional baseball careers. The ultimate goal is for them to be baseball lifers – possibly even general managers one day. Bragg, Battle, and Evans believe their performance will open the door for others who look like them.
A goal of the Squirrels’ is to expand the career development and mentoring program to include more HBCUs. Doing so will provide more opportunities to diversify the game. As well as expanding the Legacy 34 Scholarship to provide multi-year funding for scholarship winners. “We’re not just a baseball team,” as Parney said that day in February 2020. “We’re much more than that.”
Legacy Weekend 2023 is Friday, August 18 and Saturday, August 19, at The Diamond.