During the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement, sit-in protests were organized to bring awareness to the unfair practice of segregation in public spaces. Seventy-five years ago today, the Alexandria Library sit-In took place in Northern Virginia just outside of Washington, D.C. It is considered the earliest library sit-in and also one of the earliest recorded protests of its kind.
On August 21, 1939, the sit-in’s organizer, local attorney Samuel W. Tucker, had five African-American men attempt to obtain cards from the Kate Waller Barrett Library. As a public space, Virginia’s “racial integrity” laws didn’t legally bar Blacks from borrowing books from the space but they were denied anyway.
The five men, William “Buddy” Evans, Otto L. Tucker, Edward Gaddis, Morris Murray, and Clarence Strange individually entered the Barrett library in an attempt to get cards for book loans.
Each man was denied a card, so they took a book off the shelf and began to read. Police were called in after a couple of hours and they were arrested for disorderly conduct. The court delayed their trial and they were never convicted.
The racism and discrimination the men faced inspired Tucker to continue rallying for equal rights, and a Blacks-only library was opened the following year. As expected, this new facility did not compare to the Barrett library.
The Barrett Branch was fully integrated in the 1950s, with Tucker leading local efforts for the change. Today, the Barrett Branch sits in a section of Northern Virginia known as Old Town. Million-dollar homes and posh condos rest near the Potomac River as housing projects, filled with Black and Hispanic residents, are just beyond the neighborhood’s limits.
The former Blacks-only library is now the Alexandria Black History Museum.
“Due to the bravery of these men, 75 years later our library is a community hub that supports all individuals by providing equal access to books, technology, culture, and so much more”, stated Director of Libraries, Rose T. Dawson in a recent press release promoting a celebration of the 75th anniversary at the Barrett library.
Ms. Dawson is also Alexandria’s first African-American Library Director.