August 21, 1939 – Civil Rights Protest at the Alexandria, Virginia Library

One of America’s first sit-ins for civil rights took place in the public library of Alexandria, Virginia on this date in history.

At the time, the present-day Barrett Branch Library on Queen Street was the only library building in a city with a population of 33,000. Although it was financed for the most part with taxpayer money paid by both blacks and whites, it was only open to whites.
 
Samuel Wilbert Tucker (1913-1990) grew up only two blocks from the Barrett Branch but was not allowed to use it. He also had to travel over a mile to attend a high school for black children, even though there was a high school closer to him.

Samuel Wilbert Tucker

Tucker attended Howard University for his undergrad degree and studied law on his own at the Library of Congress. He passed the bar at age 20, but was too young to be sworn in until the following year. He understood personally the importance of libraries, and resolved to gain access for blacks to the public library in his community.
 
In the summer of 1939, Tucker, then 26, selected a group of African American men to help him challenge the status quo. A black history site relates:
 

On Friday, August 21, 1939, 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.”

As the Washington Post reports, the assistant librarian, Alice Green, told the men: I’m sorry, you fellows will have to leave. This library is for whites only.’ The readers maintained silence.”

The library’s page, the Post continues, “ran to the lodgings of Catharine Scoggin, the head librarian. ‘Oh mercy, Miss Scoggin, there’s colored people all over the library!’” Scoggin hurried off to discuss the situation with the city manager and the chief of police.

The youths involved, between the ages of 18 and 22, were five out of an initial group of 11 who were recruited and secretly trained by Tucker over a 10 day period, according to the Alexandria Black History Museum. Tucker instructed them on what to say, what to wear, and how to act, precisely so there could be no accusations of bad conduct of any kind.

Nevertheless, you would have thought it was Starbucks in 2018; the library staff called the police. Clarence Strange’s brother ran to Tucker’s law office to let him know the police were on the way.
 
Officers arrived and escorted the protestors from the library, arresting them for “disorderly conduct.” Samuel Tucker brought a photographer, who took a photo, and then quickly arranged for the release of the men. He wanted to challenge the city in court, but the city resisted and stalled, lest it be forced to integrate.

Police escorting out the would-be readers from the library

Unfortunately, Tucker became seriously ill and was unable to pursue the case himself. In 1940, community leaders proceeded without him and accepted the promise of a “separate but equal” library. The Alexandria Library Board quickly approved the construction of a “colored library,” the Robert H. Robinson Library. It appropriated funding for books, and hired an African American librarian. (That building currently serves as the Alexandria Black History Museum.)
 
Tucker was infuriated, and insisted on equal protection under the law, writing:

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.”

The Black History Museum contends:

Samuel W. Tucker ingeniously combined two tactics that would become the cornerstone of the Civil Rights movement. He attacked the system of Jim Crow through direct-action, the sit-in, and acted as counsel for the trials that followed questioning the legality of segregated libraries.”

While the sit-in received national media attention, it was soon overshadowed by the opening of a new world war.
 
Tucker remained a leader in the war for equal rights, serving a as the lead lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Virginia. He appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court four times, and was a founding partner in the prominent Richmond law firm, Hill, Tucker, and Marsh.

Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, then the Senate’s sole black member, said of Tucker in 1975:

He is really one of the most brilliant minds that I know, a man of great integrity. He is always on the firing line when he believes injustice is being done or some wrong needs to be righted.”

 
On October 19, 2000, a decade after Tucker’s passing, his hometown dedicated its newest elementary school in his honor.

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