Alexandria citizens sit-in for library integration, 1939

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Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
The sit-in lasted one day, but the campaign continued in the form of a court case.
21 Aug
1939
to
21 Aug
1939
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Alexandria, Virginia
Goals: 
Racially integrate the Alexandria Public Library and gain library services
 

In August 1937, the city of Alexandria, Virginia opened its first public library, the Alexandria Library. Although all citizens funded the library, only whites could attend. The city council took no action beyond casual discussion to accommodate black patrons.

In 1939, a local black attorney, 26-year-old Samuel Wilbert Tucker, began challenging the lack of public library access for black citizens. On 17 March 1939, Tucker sent in a library card application for George Miller, a black resident.

The library staff refused and Tucker sued for unequal treatment. Since no city or state laws enforced library segregation, the court favored Tucker. However, Judge William Woolls withheld a ruling to give time for the city council to find a way around integration.

At this point, the National Advancement for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) offered to help Tucker, but he refused because he felt the NAACP would settle for a ‘separate but equal’ solution.

After months of waiting on a ruling, Tucker decided to make the library issue more urgent. He employed the sit-down strike strategy normally used by labor unions. He recruited eleven men in town for the sit-in, but six backed out during preparations. Tucker trained the men to appear and act as orderly and well-mannered men no matter what the response.

The remaining five men to start the sit-in were William Evans, Edward Gaddis, Morris Murray, Otto Tucker (Samuel Tucker’s brother), and Clarence Strange, all between the ages of 18 and 22. On 21 August 1939, these men entered Alexandria Library one at a time, asking for a library card.

The librarian refused each one. The five then took a book from a shelf, one at a time, and began to read at a table.

The head librarian, Katharine Scoggin, called police, who soon arrived and arrested the group. Meanwhile, Robert Strange, brother of Clarence Strange, kept watch of the sit-in and told Samuel Tucker of the arrests.

The group’s politeness had the effect Tucker expected, and the police did not have a conviction for arresting the men. The police chief eventually decided on disorderly conduct.

On 29 August, court trials began on the sit-in. Tucker argued against the charges of disorderly conduct on the grounds that no law prevented the men from sitting in the library. The city defendant’s weak argument for segregation confirmed Tucker’s point. Judge James Duncan sent both sides to prepare briefings about the charge of disturbing the peace.

The case ends here as Judge Duncan never dismissed the charges, and never brought the case back into court.

In mid-September, Judge Woolls released a ruling on the Wilson library card case. He wrote that since Wilson did not prove his citizenship in the application, the library had a reason for denying him. However, the library could not deny Wilson due to his race. On 10 January 1940, Judge Woolls made a second ruling that the library had to serve black citizens who submitted proper applications. Soon, the library began receiving hundreds of library card applications from black patrons.

After an emergency session, the Alexandria City Council approved funding for a separate blacks-only library on 12 January. The approved library cards would only apply for the black library.

While the black community reacted positively, Tucker saw the decision as a failure at integration. He sent a response to Katharine Scoggin stating his own refusal of a library card to the blacks-only library.

On 23 April 1940, the blacks-only library, Robert H. Robinson Library, opened in Alexandria. As Tucker feared, the services and selection of books did not match the whites-only library. Further attempts at library integration did not occur until the 1960s.

Research Notes
Influences: 

Samuel Tucker took the idea of a sit-in from the sit-down strikes used by labor unions during the 1930's (1). This campaign attracted a younger generation of blacks towards nonviolent resistance in the 1950's and 1960's (2).

Sources: 
Dawson, Rose. "1939 Library Sit-in." Alexandria Library. Alexandria Library, n.d. Web. 31 Mar 2014. <http://www.alexandria.lib.va.us/client/home/?rm=1939 LIBRARY S0|||1|||0|||true>.

"Five Colored Youths Stage Alexandria Library 'Sit-Down'." The Washington Post (1923-1954): 3. Aug 22 1939. ProQuest. Web. 31 Mar. 2014.

Pulliam, Ted. Historic Alexandria: An Illustrated History. Alexandria: Historic Publishing Network Books, 2011. 55. Web.

Smith, J. Douglas. Managing White Supremacy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. 259-270. eBook.

Additional Notes: 
This campaign is one of the first racially-connected sit-ins in the United States.

Out of Obscurity (2000) is a short documentary about the Alexandria sit-in (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1lyozULH4A).

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Kerry Robinson, 30/03/2014