The Alexandria Library Sit-in

The Alexandria Library sit-In 1939

The Alexandria Library sit-In 1939

Well before the famous Woolworth’s counter sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina occurred, the first organized sit-in by African-Americans happened 21 years earlier approximately 300 miles away. On March 17, 1939, attorney Samuel Wilbert Tucker and retired Army Sergeant George Wilson (both African-American), walked through the doors of a segregated Queen Street library in Alexandria, Virginia. Each requested an application for a library card, but library policy was to not issue these cards to persons of colored race. Tucker had passed the newly erected Alexandria library on a daily basis, yet as an African-American, he had to travel to the District of Columbia to obtain access to library facilities. Unsatisfied with the unequal access to educational facilities, Tucker decided to battle the system of Jim Crow through the legal system.

Organized and instructed by Tucker, five young black men entered the Barrett Branch Library on Queen Street one by one and politely requested library cards. When refused, each one took a book off the shelf and sat down in the reading room. As the men sat down to read, police officers were called. William Evans, Otto L. Tucker, Edward Gaddis, Morris Murray, and Clarence Strange would each be arrested for “disorderly conduct.” Tucker had instructed the men to dress well, speak politely and offer no resistance to the police to minimize the chance of the men being found guilty of disorderly conduct or resisting arrest. Tucker defended the men in the ensuing legal actions which resulted in the protestors not being convicted of disorderly conduct.

A lawsuit would be filed in the local court to force the librarian to issue a library card to Sergeant Wilson as a taxpaying citizen of the City of Alexandria. When the case was eventually heard on January 10, 1940, the judge rejected the petition for a library card for “technical reasons”, but affirmed that “there were no legal grounds for refusing the plaintiff or any other bona fide citizen the use of the library.” The Virginia Public Assemblages Act of 1926 stated that both races were to be segregated within the same facility, therefore according to the law African-Americans were unlawfully barred from the Alexandria Library. Within two days of the judge’s decision, two African-Americans applied for library cards. Yet, they were refused by being informed that a new colored branch of the Alexandria library was under construction and that their applications was under consideration. The city would go on to open a segregated library for African-Americans. That same segregated library (the Robinson Library) is now the site of the Alexandria Black History Museum.

– Supreme Soul

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