America’s earliest known Civil Rights sit-in at a library—the 1939 sit-in on Alexandria’s own Queen Street—will be celebrated by Alexandria Library throughout 2014, as it hosts events honoring the 75th anniversary of the peaceful protest. One of the nation’s most little-known historical events involved leadership from native Alexandrian, attorney Samuel W. Tucker, and six African Americans who demonstrated an act of civil disobedience at the Barrett Branch after being denied library cards. The commemorative events at Alexandria Library locations will center around civil rights, human rights and the African American diaspora. Honoring the sit-in gives the institution the opportunity to shed light on a Civil Rights act that took place more than 15 years before the Civil Rights Movement.
“The boldness and orchestration of the sit-in was unparalleled by anything else at the time,” said Anniversary co-chair, Alexandria Civil Rights legend Ferdinand Day, who played a pivotal role in Alexandria’s school integration during the 1960s. “Its place in history is not just an achievement for African Americans—it paved the way for providing free access of the Library to the entire public.”
The commemoration begins this month with the Alexandria Library’s Martin Luther King Jr. programs. On Sunday, February 9, at 2 p.m. author Nancy Silcox will join Beatley Central Library to discuss her book, “Samuel Wilbert Tucker: Story of the Civil Right Trailblazer and the 1939 Alexandria Library Sit-In.” Find out more about the Library’s upcoming anniversary events.
More About Samuel Tucker and the 1939 Civil Rights Sit-In
Samuel Wilbert Tucker (1913-1990), who grew up only two blocks from the Barrett Branch, then known as Alexandria Library, graduated from Howard University and prepared for the field of law. He passed Virginia’s bar exam at age 20, but Tucker, an outstanding student, was too young to be sworn in. A year later, he took the oath. Tucker tried for several years to establish equal access to community resources, but the white community, including the Alexandria Library Board, remained unswayed.
In the summer of 1939, Tucker, now 26, developed a strategy by preparing a select group of African American men for a deliberate act of civil disobedience. Ranging in age from 18 to 22 years, these Alexandrians challenged the status quo.
On Friday, August 21, 1939, Alexandria Library staff and patrons watched as a young African American entered and asked to register for a library card. When he was refused, he picked up a book, took a seat, and began to read. Minutes later, another well-groomed and polite young adult repeated these actions. This continued until William Evans, Otto L. Tucker (the attorney’s brother), Edward Gaddis, Morris Murray and Clarence Strange occupied five tables. Each one sat in silence and read a book.
Flustered library staff called the police. Officers arrived and escorted the protestors from the library, arresting them for “disorderly conduct.” Samuel Tucker had called a photographer, who took a photo, and then quickly arranged for their release. He planned to challenge the city in court on the grounds that all citizens were entitled to equal access to public services. But the city, in an effort to resist integration, stalled the process with intense negotiations.
Virtually ignored by most newspapers, the case continued to be widely reported in the African American press across the country. Tucker became seriously ill and was unable to pursue the case. In 1940, community leaders proceeded without the young attorney’s involvement and accepted the promise of a “separate but equal” library. Tucker was infuriated. The Alexandria Library Board quickly approved the construction of the Robert H. Robinson Library, appropriated funding for books, and hired an African American librarian.
On February 13, 1940, Samuel Tucker replied to a letter from Librarian Katharine A. Scoggins inviting him to apply for a library card at Robinson Library. His strongly worded reply demonstrates Tucker’s commitment to equal protection under the law: “I refuse and will always refuse to accept a card to be used at the library to be constructed and operated at Alfred and Wythe Streets in lieu of [a] card to be used at the existing library on Queen Street for which I have made application."