On Monday, August 21, 1939 five black residents of Alexandria, led by African-American attorney, Samuel W. Tucker, entered the city’s all-white public library one at a time and requested library cards. When they were refused each man took a book off the shelves, sat down and began to read, ushering in the nation’s first sit-in protest. More than an hour later the police entered the library and asked the men to leave. After they refused, the police escorted the men out to a crowd of on-lookers and reporters. The protestors were charged with disorderly conduct but were never sentenced by the courts. As a result of the sit-in, Alexandria opened a segregated black library in March 1940.
1939 Alexandria Library Sit-in
Alexandria opened its first public library on Queen Street in August 1937. The library was open to white residents living in the City of Alexandria. Whites who lived outside of the city were able to use the library for a fee of $1.50 per year. The city’s library board had discussed the possibility of a black library as early as March 1937. The board considered several options including books for an expanded library at the black Parker-Gray School, building an annex to the white library that would operate on limited hours or a separate black library facility. Discussions stalled until Tucker began his assault on the Jim Crow library.
On March 17, 1939 Tucker and George Wilson, a black retired Army sergeant entered the library. Tucker attempted to obtain a card on behalf of Wilson. The pair was told that the library did not offer cards to blacks. Tucker filed suit with the Alexandria Corporation Court requesting that the librarian be compelled to issue a card to Wilson. Tucker argued that because all citizens of Alexandria, black or white, paid taxes that supported the library, all of its citizens had a right to use the facility. Indeed, there was no state law or city ordinance that forbade blacks and whites from using the same facility. The Public Assemblages Act only required that the races were segregated within the facility. Before the judge could rule on the case, Tucker implemented his plan to confront Alexandria’s segregation supporters head on.1
On Monday August 21, Otto Tucker, Edward Gaddis,Morris Murray, William Evans, and Clarence Strange arrived at the library to test the city’s commitment to segregation. Samuel Tucker did not participate in the protest itself so that he could later represent the men in court. Tucker coached the men precisely on how to act for the sit-in. Each man was impeccably dressed and behaved politely throughout the entire ordeal. Entering the library one at a time, each man requested a library card. When assistant librarian Alice Green refused, the young men persisted until they were told that blacks were not issued borrower’s cards. They were then instructed to say, “thank you,” pick up a book, sit down, and read.
Alice Green sent the library's page, William Adam, to the home of head librarian, Katharine Scoggin. “Oh mercy, Miss Scoggin, there’s colored people all over the library!” declared Adam. Scoggin conferred with city manager, Carl Budwesky, who gave the police the order to arrest the men on disorderly conduct. 2 Morris Murray later claimed he wished the arrest had come later as he was enjoying the book he chose and wanted to finish reading.
A week later, city attornery Armistead Boothe and library board president Mrs. Albert Smoot drafted a response to the sit-in that appeared in the Alexandria Gazette. The board emphasized that it represented the interests of both black and white residents of the city. Alexandria's black residents, the statement claimed, preferred a community center over a library when the issue for a black library surfaced two years prior. Furthermore, the board argued that black residents had only recently requested a library and had not provided ample time for the board to respond to the request before the sit-in occurred.
The young men who participated in the sit-in were never sentenced for disorderly conduct. Their trial began in late August. Judge James Reece Duncan, who admitted that a disorderly conduct charge would be hard to prove, granted mutliple continuances on the case. The charges were never officially dropped but neither were the young men ever brought back into the courtroom.
Tucker's lawsuit on behalf of George Wilson went to trial around the same time. Judge William Wools of the Alexandria Corporation Court stated in his ruling that if the city council did not provided a library for the city's black residents, it must allow them to use the white library. Despite this ruling, Tucker's hopes for an integrated library were dashed two days later when the Alexandria City Council announced plans for a separate African-American library. The Robert Robertson Library, on Alfred and Wythe Streets, opened in April 1940. Knowing that Robinson Library would never be equal to the white library, Tucker was infuriated by the decision and never stepped foot into the segregated library.3
1. J. Douglas Smith, Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 259-264. ↩
3. Smith, Managing White Supremacy , 265-270. ↩
"1939 Library Sit-In." Alexandria Library History.
Ackerman, S.J. "The Trials of S.W. Tucker." The Washington Post. June 11, 2000.
"Five Colored Youths Stage Alexandria Library 'Sit-Down'." The Washington Post (1923-1954), Aug 22, 1939.
Smith, J. Douglas. Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Sullivan, Patricia. "Lawyer Samuel Tucker and his historic 1939 sit-in at segregated Alexandria Library." The Washington Post, August 7, 2014.