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Literary Activism

Freedom to Read: The 1939 Alexandria Library Sit-In

Teresa Preston

Staff Writer

Since 2008, Teresa Preston has been blogging about all the books she reads at Shelf Love. She supports her book habit by working as a magazine editor at a professional association in the Washington, DC, area, which is (in)conveniently located just a few steps from a used bookstore. When she’s not reading or editing, she’s likely to be attending theatre, practicing yoga, watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer again, or doting on her toothless orange cat, Anya. Twitter: @teresareads

We avid readers know the value of access to books and information. It’s essential not just as a form of entertainment but also for a way of understanding the world. Libraries are a vital way of making reading available to everyone in the community. But libraries haven’t always been open and welcoming spaces. It’s something I’m reminded of whenever I visit my local library, the site of one of the first sit-ins of the early Civil Rights movement in the U.S.

The Alexandria Free Library (now the Barrett Branch Library) was built in 1937 and was said to be free to any tax-paying citizen of Alexandria, Virginia. However, black citizens were not able to obtain library cards or use the facility.

Samuel W. Tucker grew up just a couple of blocks from the library. A graduate of Howard University in Washington, DC, he studied law on his own and worked in a law office in order to pass the law exam and become an attorney. As an attorney, he worked for civil rights and equality. In May 1939, he accompanied retired Army Sergeant George Wilson to the library so he could request a library card. He was refused. A veteran who served his country could not get a card simply because he was black. Tucker, Wilson, and other black citizens were forced to go across the river to Washington, DC, if they wanted to use a library.

Tucker took the city to court, but he wanted to do more. Having studied Gandhi’s protests, Tucker knew that peaceful protest and civil disobedience could be a way to bring attention to the cause. Tucker recruited five young black men—William Evans, Otto L. Tucker, Edward Gaddis, Morris Murray and Clarence Strange—to participate in a sit-in on August 21, 1939.

Much like the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s, this effort was deliberately planned to be peaceful. One at a time, the impeccably dressed men came into the library and asked for a library card. After being refused, they each sat down to read silently. The librarian called the police. Tucker had already arranged to have the press contacted if the police were called. A photographer arrived to take a photo. The men were arrested, and the case went to court.

Unfortunately, the sit-in didn’t receive widespread media attention. And the city moved slowly on resolving the case, asking for continuances and eventually dropping the charge against the men at the sit-in. Wilson became ill and was unable to continue his work on the Wilson case. In January 1940, a judge ruled that the city couldn’t deny African American citizens access to library resources. However, by then, the city had built the “separate but (not at all) equal” Robert Robinson library just a few blocks away.

Although having something was better than nothing, Tucker made it clear that this was not an appropriate solution. His letter to the city librarian stated, “I refuse and will always refuse to accept a card” for the new black library. His goal was equality, and a substandard facility, with used books and worn-out furnishings, was not equality. The library was not desegregated until the 1960s.

Today, a placard outside the Barrett library memorializes the sit-in. The nearby Robinson library is now the site of the Alexandria Black History Museum.

Learn more about the sit-in at the Alexandria Library website, the Alexandria Black History Museum, the Alexandria City website, Book-TV on CSPAN (video), and the Kojo Nnamdi Show (audio).