Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Library the Site of First Civil Rights Sit-In in U.S.

One August day in 1939, five young men entered a public library in Alexandria, Virginia. Wanting to use the bright new facility, the men requested library cards. But they were refused. Why? They were black and the library, the Barrett Branch of the Alexandria Library, was for whites only. This was the segregated American South, where Jim Crow laws dictated there be separate facilities for black and white citizens. However, there wasn't a library for blacks in Alexandria in 1939.
The Barrett Branch of the Alexandria Library in the late 1930s.
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The five men were undeterred. Otto L. Tucker, age 22; Morris L. Murray, 22; Edward Gaddis, 21; Clarence Strange, 21; and William Edwards, 19, quietly made their way to a bookshelf, picked out some books, entered the library's reading room, and sat down to read. "Because their presence [at the library] caused embarrassment to the white patrons," according to the September 2, 1939, edition of The Afro-American newspaper, the librarian on duty, Catherine Scoggin, walked over and asked them to leave. The men didn't. Promptly, the police were called. Arriving at the library, the police officers confronted the men, ordering them to leave the facility. The men silently stood up and started to leave the library, but as they reached the door, the police arrested them for disorderly conduct.

This brave action on the part of five young men who simply wanted to use the public library is widely considered to be the first civil rights sit-in in the United States, predating the much more well-known lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, by 21 years.

The five men being escorted from the Barrett Branch Library by police in August 1939.
Photo via

Tucker, Murray, Gaddis, Strange, and Edwards contested the charge of disorderly conduct with the aid of Attorney Samuel W. Tucker, who was the older brother of Otto L. Tucker. The elder Tucker had organized the sit-in at Alexandria Library's Barrett Branch for its refusal to issue library cards to the black citizens of Alexandria, Virginia. (Ironically, the branch is named for the physician and social reformer Kate Waller Barrett, whose philanthropic efforts benefited black Americans.) During the trial, Attorney Tucker got the police to admit that "being colored was the true basis of charges of disorderly conduct laid against five young men who entered the local public library," according to the aforementioned Afro-American article. Ultimately, the charges against the men were dropped.

One year after the 1939 sit-in at the Barrett Branch, the city of Alexandria, Virginia, opened a library for its black residents, the Robert H. Robinson Library. Today, that library is the Alexandria Black History Museum. All libraries within the Alexandra public library system were officially desegregated in the 1950s.

In 2000, Out of Obscurity, a 40-minute documentary on the 1939 sit-in at the Alexandria Library, was released by California Newsreel.

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