On August 21, 1939—73 years ago today and more than two decades before the famous sit-in movement—five young African Americans staged a planned sit-in at the public library in Alexandria, Virginia. It is generally believed to be the nation’s first sit-in.
Organized by attorney Samuel Tucker, the five young men entered the Barrett Branch Library on Queen Street and politely requested library cards. After their requests were denied simply because they were African American, the men sat down to read. Police officers were called, and the men were arrested for “disorderly conduct.” Although the men ultimately were not convicted, their arrest represented a blatant display of racism and discrimination.
Such segregation was not unusual. Virginia’s Public Assemblages Act (1926, also known as the Massenburg Bill)—one of several “racial integrity laws” passed by white supremacists—required whites and African Americans to be segregated within the same facility; however, in the case of the Alexandria library, African Americans were completely and illegally barred from admission.
Months earlier, a retired army sergeant, George Wilson, had also tried to obtain a library card, also to no avail. Although a lawsuit was filed, and although the judge affirmed that there were “no legal grounds for refusing the plaintiff or any other bona fide citizen the use of the library,” Wilson’s request for a library card was denied on technical grounds.
One year later, the city opened a segregated library for African Americans—a library that of course was inferior to the whites-only library (which, by the way, wasn’t integrated until the 1950s). That same segregated library for African Americans is today the site of the Alexandria Black History Museum.
Attorney Samuel Tucker continued to fight for equality, working with the NAACP to desegregate public schools. He was instrumental in the fight against segregation in Prince Edward County. (To learn more about this struggle, check out Jill Ogline Titus’ Brown’s Battleground: Students, Segregationists, and the Struggle for Justice in Prince Edward County, Virginia, published by UNC Press in 2011.)
In 2009, on the 70th anniversary of the sit-in, elementary students from a school named for Tucker participated in a reenactment.
A documentary entitled Out of Obscurity chronicles the 1939 sit-in.
To learn more, and to view a photograph, check out this page from the Alexandria Black History Museum. The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities also provides a summary through its African American Historic Sites Database.
To read an article published in the Afro-American a week after the protest, click here.
To learn more about race relations and segregation during this time period in Virginia, check out J. Douglas Smith’s Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics, and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia (UNC Press 2002).
To learn more about the development of racism and white supremacy, check out Mark Smith’s How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses (UNC Press 2008).
To learn more about how Virginia’s laws have changed over time, check out Peter Wallenstein’s Blue Laws and Black Codes: Conflict, Courts, and Change in Twentieth-Century Virginia (UVA Press 2004).