Sit-in at Alexandria's White-Only Public Library, 1939
Police arrest Tucker and the four other men after they refused to leave the white-only library.
Alexandria Library Sit-In Historical Marker
Samuel W. Tucker, an ardent opponent of Jim Crow laws in Virginia. (Courtesy of Alexandria Black History Museum collection)
Tucker's letter in response of the Blacks-only library following the sit-in
One of the few newspaper stories about the sit-in
Samuel Wilbert Tucker: The Story of a Civil Rights Trailblazer and the 1939 Alexandria Library Sit-In
Backstory and Context
In March 1939, Tucker was not allowed entry to the Alexandria Library (another white-only establishment). Tucker took the case to court and discovered that the city's solution was to built an all-Black library, which Tucker knew from experience would not offer the same access to services and information. In response to this injustice, Tucker worked with others in Alexandria's Black community and organized a group of young men who were willing to challenge the city's policy of segregation, even if it meant that they would be arrested.
On the day of the protest, August 21, 1939, only five men arrived: Otto Tucker, 22; William “Buddy” Evans, 19; Edward Gaddis, 21; Morris L. Murray, 22; and Clarence “Buck” Strange, 21. One by one, these men entered the library and asked to register for a library card. When refused, the protester picked up a book, took a seat, and read quietly. Five men at five different tables read their books without causing a stir. Each of the men had prepared for the event. Knowing that they might be photographed and arrested, each wore their best clothing and resolved to act politely in the face of insults.
The library staff called the police (Tucker, as planned, was waiting for the police's arrival) and the police soon arrived and arrested the five men for disorderly conduct (as the men's politeness had an impact and the police had difficulties finding grounds for a conviction). Samuel Tucker had a photographer waiting outside to take a photo, and he quickly arranged for the men's release from custody.
The charges were never dismissed, nor were they ever brought back to court. The case essentially disappeared from the record without ever reaching a formal resolution. The story was largely ignored outside of Black communities. The Alexandria Library Board, in response, promised to build the Blacks-only Robert H. Robinson Library and hire an African American librarian. Tucker wrote a passionate letter in response. "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," he wrote, "in lieu of [a] card to be used at the existing library on Queen Street for which I have made application."
Tucker went on to become a leading civil rights attorney on behalf of the NAACP, winning many cases against segregated schools during the 1960s, including the infamous case in Prince Edward County where school officials closed all public schools in order to avoid the court's order to desegregate.1
2.) Lawyer Samuel Tucker and his historic 1939 sit-in at segregated Alexandria library Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/lawyer-samuel-tucker-and-his-historic-1939-sit-in-at-segregated-alexandria-library/2014/08/05/c9c1d38e-1be8-11e4-ae54-0cfe1f974f8a_story.html
3.) The Virginia Library SIt-in, Newseum website, http://www.newseum.org/2015/02/09/unsung-heroes-Virginia-library-sit-in/
4.) "1939 Library Sit-In." Alexandria Library History, accessed May 15, 2016
5.) Rebecca Sheir, How An Alexandria Man Came To Lead One Of The First Civil Rights Protests WAMU Radio October 3, 2014