Alexandria, Va., is a city with a rich history, a place where President George Washington once conducted business and where Civil War General Robert E. Lee grew up. While those are well-known parts of our history, not as many know that in 1939, it was also the location of America’s first library sit-in, when five young African American men peacefully protested the city’s whites-only policy.
The Alexandria Library Sit-In (http://alexlibraryva.org/1939-sit-in) took place 16 years before the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, 21 years before the 1960 Greensboro Sit-In at the Woolworth lunch counter in North Carolina, and 25 years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Through a series of celebrations that date back to 2009, we at Alexandria Library have sought to make the library sit-in just as well-known as those events. In this moment of national reckoning with issues of racial equity, remembering the Alexandria Library Sit-In feels even more urgent for us.
Alexandria is a densely populated urban area in the Washington, D.C., metro region, with 159,000 residents. More than 21% are African American, and 48% of the city’s overall population is non-white. While we currently pride ourselves on promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion in our organization, Alexandria Library hasn’t always been on the right side of history.
A Historic Protest
Our organization was established as a subscription library in 1794. It became a public library in 1937, although at that time, only white patrons were allowed to use it. After an ongoing effort to convince officials to establish equal access to community resources, 26-year-old resident and attorney Samuel Tucker organized five other African American residents to participate in a sit-in protest.
On Aug. 21, 1939, William “Buddy” Evans, Morris Murray, Edward Gaddis, Clarence Strange, and Otto Tucker went into the whites-only library and asked to register for library cards. After being turned down, each sat silently at a different table and began to read a library book. Police officers arrested all five and charged them with disorderly conduct. Tucker, the attorney, proceeded to challenge the city in court. In an attempt to resist integration, the court case was delayed. In 1940, Tucker became ill and was unable to pursue the case. Other leaders in the African American community stepped in, and they accepted the offer of a “separate but equal” facility. In April 1940, the city of Alexandria opened the Robert H. Robinson Library, a separate space for African Americans, which operated for about 20 years.
Since 2009, Alexandria Library staffers have been working to honor and to increase awareness about the 1939 action. Our most recent effort, a 2019 program series called We Are the Alexandria Library Sit-In,” which commemorated the 80th anniversary of the protest, earned us the 2020 ALA Excellence in Library Programming Award and a 2020 John Cotton Dana Library Public Relations Award. I, Andrea Castillo, co-chaired the committee that planned the series. Because I was not working at the library during 2009 and 2014 commemorations, our executive director Rose Dawson joins me to share some history, since this success was years in the making.
Telling Our Story
Dawson recognized the importance of the protest from her earliest days at the helm. She has emphasized the necessity of bringing awareness to it as an important part of the history of our library and of civil rights. As the first African American to hold the position of executive director, Dawson felt she would not have been here were it not for the brave actions of the past. Today, our historical focus complements ongoing efforts by Alexandria leaders and workers to promote equity and access throughout the city. It’s also consistent with the goals of our library’s current strategic plan, which prioritizes hosting programs that meet the needs of vulnerable members of our community.
Our objectives in increasing programming about the sit-in were to continue to build local, state, and national awareness about the event and to foster community engagement through important discussions not only about Alexandria’s history, but also about race and social justice. Additionally, it was very important to us to involve the families of the protesters in our latest events, which unfortunately had not previously occurred. Inviting them to share their experiences with the community brought history to life.
Planning the 2009 and 2014 Events
Alexandria Library had been commemorating the anniversary of the protest in 5-year intervals (in 2009 and 2014) before we planned the yearlong commemoration for 2019.
Back in 2009, Dawson partnered with the Alexandria Black History Museum (ABHM) to put together a 1-day event for the sit-in’s 70th anniversary. The event, promoted primarily through the library’s newsletter, featured a reenactment of the sit-in with local schoolchildren, and Dawson served as the emcee. Library staff also coordinated efforts for a special postmark recognizing the date of the 70th anniversary of the sit-in. While the event was well-attended, many saw it as an ABHM celebration. Dawson decided the library would organize and host its own event for the 75th anniversary.
For that 75th anniversary in 2014, an internal committee made up of representatives of all library branches and departments took the lead on planning. An external committee, comprising representatives from the NAACP, ABHM, Alexandria City Public Schools, and local businesses, as well as faith leaders, served as advisors. We gave each organization a notebook with the history of and talking points about the sit-in. We also recruited Alexandria civil rights icon Ferdinand Day and former mayor Patsy Ticer to serve as honorary co-chairs, which elevated the celebration in the eyes of the community. We started planning in October 2013 for a yearlong celebration.
First, the internal committee decided to brand the celebration. We created a logo and a tagline—A Peaceful Protest Ahead of its Time—and used them on all event fliers, promotional materials, and merchandise. We purchased several iterations of the domain “librarysitin” to direct traffic to our website, and our communications staffers used Facebook to promote the events.
In January 2014, we sent out a press release announcing the upcoming year of events. It included quotes from the honorary co-chairs, and it garnered attention and support from the local community. We also distributed commemorative postcards at each of our branches, at the ABHM, and through Visit Alexandria, an organization that promotes tourism. Library staff submitted the sit-in to Chase’s Calendar of Events, and its acceptance ensured annual recognition.
The library created a traveling exhibit that was displayed in city hall and elsewhere. Librarians applied to Virginia’s Department of Historic Preservation seeking a historic marker, which we unveiled at a half-day outdoor celebration that drew more than 650 people. Other city agencies, nonprofits, and summer camps supported the event and used our flier to encourage their clients to attend. Local news stations NBC4 and ABC7 interviewed Dawson on the scene, and publications such as The Washington Post, Alexandria Gazette Packet, and Alexandria Times also covered the event.
Prepping for the 80th Anniversary
For the 80th anniversary, we continued to build on the successes of the 75th anniversary. We wanted to plan programs that would run throughout 2019, so we began in fall 2018 by forming a committee of staff members from across many library branches and departments. Again, we used the A Peaceful Protest Ahead of its Time tagline, and we updated the logo. We put the logo on lapel pins, postcards, invitations, fliers, and a special edition of the DVD Out of Obscurity: The Story of the 1939 Alexandria Library Sit-In, a documentary made by a local filmmaker in conjunction with the ABHM, which we offered for sale. Additionally, we distributed 1,000 limited-edition commemorative library cards, which were available at no cost to new and existing customers.
In January 2019, our communications office issued a press release announcing the We Are the Alexandria Library Sit-In program series. In February, we launched a trivia quiz on our homepage that focused on the history of the library, the city, and the 1939 protest. We publicized the quiz in our newsletter, and players could win prizes for answering questions correctly.
Throughout the year, each of our four branches hosted a showing, one per quarter, of the Out of Obscurity documentary. We created a poster announcing the dates and showtimes and placed copies in every branch. We announced the quarterly showings in our newsletter as well.
As we began planning for 2019, we were aware of one big failure from our previous commemorations: We had not identified and engaged the family members of the sit-in participants. We hoped to do that this time, but by June, we still had failed to connect with descendants of the protesters. While attending an Equal Justice Initiative meeting, Dawson met a local historian who provided contact information for several of the families.
Given our history, there was no surprise that the families had some distrust concerning our desire to celebrate this event. But Dawson managed to get representatives from two of the families to sit down and talk to her. In brainstorming with them, Dawson agreed that the library would host a Descendants Panel and create READ-style posters featuring the family members.
Creating Customized READ Posters
My co-chair Brian Sando and I reached out to several descendants and invited them to an early August photo shoot at the Kate Waller Barrett Branch Library, where the sit-in had taken place. One of our summer interns took both individual and group photos, including one re-enacting the 1939 photo of the five protesters being escorted out of the library by the police. Dawson was there to continue building relationships with the descendants.
All of the work on our own READ posters happened in-house. Senior communications officer Anton Murray edited the photos and used Adobe InDesign and a handmade template to ensure they had a consistent look. We printed them in-house as well. We unveiled the posters at an anniversary event at the Barrett Branch Library later in August. (Several more descendants attended that event, and Murray took photos of them, then created a new set of posters that were later unveiled at the Descendants Panel in October.)
In all, we created 18 posters and gave each of the descendants a copy of the one bearing his or her own likeness as a personal keepsake. We chose to display two of the images, the re-enactment of the 1939 arrest and one of William “Buddy” Evans’ great-great grandsons, inside all Alexandria Library locations and in city hall. We also gave the posters to other partners like city recreation centers and the sheriff’s office.
Recognizing Descendants; Righting Wrongs of the Past
In July, I had reached out to Virginia Delegate Charniele Herring, the chief patron of House Joint Resolution No. 1134 (http://bit.ly/joint-res) recognizing the 80th anniversary of the Alexandria Library Sit-In. We received word that she would be able to attend our August event, and we made plans to have her read the resolution at the Barrett Branch Library. Unfortunately, at the last
minute Herring could not attend, but legislative fellow Tia Banks read the resolution instead. This kicked off a week of celebrations at all four branches to commemorate the anniversary of the historic sit-in. We received a copy of the resolution, which made its way to each of the library branches throughout the week.
The year of events culminated with the Alexandria Library Sit-In Descendants Panel in October 2019, which we’d promoted via fliers in the library, our enewsletter, Facebook, Twitter, and our website. We made sure to cross-promote the panel at other library events as well. In addition, we emailed prominent community organizers, government officials, faith leaders, and others to invite them. News coverage of the August anniversary had also helped build awareness about our panel program.
An extra-special moment occurred that we had not originally planned for. As the library’s executive director, Dawson always attended the city manager’s monthly meetings and ended up talking with Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter about the sit-in. This led to Porter petitioning the circuit court to have the original disorderly conduct charges against the protesters dropped. That was big news, so we issued a press release a few days before our panel. Several media organizations picked up the news, which helped our attendance numbers. On the big day, we witnessed Alexandria mayor Justin Wilson, with Porter by his side, read the circuit court dismissal saying that charges against the five protesters had been dropped. The mayor gave signed copies of the document to the attending descendants.
During October’s Alexandria Library Sit-In Descendants Panel, relatives of several of the protesters shared their experiences as Black citizens in Alexandria and how the events of 1939 affected their families. More than 200 people attended the program, enough to pack both the library event space and an overflow room upstairs. We also broadcast the event live online (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHiRbxgVyN4) and later shared the video.
Moreover, the Descendants Panel garnered local and national media coverage across a variety of platforms, including The Washington Post (https://wapo.st/37lX632), the Associated Press (http://bit.ly/AP-Alex-sitin), local news radio station WTOP, Alexandria-based publications Zebra and Alexandria Living Magazine, and local television stations ABC7, NBC4, and WDVM.
To commemorate both the sit-in and the 225th anniversary of the founding of the Alexandria Library Company (https://alexlibraryva.org/about-us), the library added two American Girl dolls to its collection: Melody and Felicity. We partnered with Virginia Railway Express to welcome Melody, an African American doll that represented the civil rights era, in August 2019. Accompanied by Dawson, Melody rode the Amtrak train from Washington, D.C., to Alexandria Union Station. Thanks to Alexandria LivingMagazine and our Twitter posts, there were 30 young girls on the train platform with their own dolls waiting to greet Melody. Many others followed Melody’s journey through Facebook and Twitter as she visited historic African American sites.
Throughout 2019, we distributed 2,500 lapel pins, 4,000 postcards, and 100 READ posters across schools, city agencies, and libraries to ensure that people remember the events into the future.
Support Enables Success
Our employees were delighted and humbled to have won two major awards for our 2019 We Are the Alexandria Library Sit-In project. It took hard work and relationship-building over a number of years, and we learned along the way. We found that our programs really became successful once we had the support of community leaders, organizations, and especially the protesters’ relatives. While welcoming them last year does not erase the past, it was important for us to give them a platform to share their stories so their legacy would not be forgotten.
Their input and participation in this project made winning a John Cotton Dana Award all the more rewarding. Exploring your library’s history can be difficult, especially if it involves discrimination and segregationist policies. At Alexandria Library, we’ve found it is well worth the effort.