Events of great significance in the fledgling Civil Rights movement happened in Alexandria, Va., just before the US entered World War II. Blacks were denied the right to vote unless they could prove they were literate, but only whites were allowed to check out books from the public libraries paid for by taxes from all citizens in Alexandria, black and white.
That seemed unfair—and unconstitutional—to a black lawyer named Samuel Wilbert Tucker. Spurred to action by the unwillingness of Alexandria’s librarians to give library cards to blacks in 1939, the Howard University-trained attorney, who had passed the Virginia Bar Exam only five and a half years earlier at the age of 21, became a trailblazer of civil rights in the US long before the world had even heard of Martin Luther King Jr.
He talked to 11 young black men and convinced five of them to visit one of Alexandria’s public libraries one day, take a few books off the shelf, and politely sit their well-dressed selves down to read the books. Library staff called the police, who removed the five black men from the library:
- William (Buddy) Evans
- Otto L Tucker
- Edward Gaddis
- Morris Murray
- Clarence Strange
This happening had been anticipated long before the day, and members of the press were notified. They showed up to take pictures and document how Officer John F Kelly and co-workers escorted the men out of the library on Queen Street on Aug 21, 1939.
Within a year after the peaceful sit-in, modeled no doubt after some of the peaceful protests in India led by Mahatma Gandhi, of which Mr Tucker certainly learned in his law studies at Howard, the librarian in Alexandria offered Mr Tucker and the black men a card and check-out privileges at a new library built for African Americans at the intersection of Wythe and Alfred streets.
In a letter dated Feb 13, 1940, Mr Tucker said he refused to accept a library card that would only be good at the Robinson Library on Wythe Street, which hadn’t yet been completed, and felt justified in seeking review of the matter from a court of law. That is, he didn’t want a separate library for blacks; he wanted all citizens of Alexandria to use the same public library.
When the library for blacks was completed, it was small and underfunded, getting about half of the public funds that were originally promised to it. You can get some idea of the small size from a modern fire marshal sign, which says occupancy by more than 49 people is illegal.
The library is now home to the Black History Museum, which houses a few original documents, such as records of burials in Alexandria and service records of black military troops. It also houses a few artifacts, such as shackles used to bind slaves during the 1700s and 1800s in America, as well as a stringed musical instrument.
I would say the site is more a historical marker than a museum: Being in the building brought a sense of history to my mind, as well as a sense of the importance of literacy and how keeping blacks from achieving functional literacy by denying them access to books was a crime of epic proportions—against our Constitution and against our conscience.
A donation of $2 is recommended upon visiting the museum, which also has a few reproductions of documents on display, such as the one above, showing an ad for the sale of slaves in Alexandria. All proceeds go to preserve this important piece of our history as Americans of reading, of literacy, of education, and of civil rights.