"Tucker eloquently challenged the essential assumptions of paternalism and put white elites on notice that they could no longer manage race relations in the manner to which they had been accustomed." – J. Douglas Smith
Last year, over 4 million people visited the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. One of the more prominent exhibits on display is the Greensboro (North Carolina) Woolworth’s Lunch Counter. In 1960, four black students from nearby A&T University sat down there in silent protest of Jim Crow laws. Their sit-in, and others like it, inspired other such actions aimed at ending discrimination against African-Americans.
Much lesser known is the story of five black men who, in 1939, participated in what might be the first Civil Rights sit-in. Their pioneering protest occurred on August 21, 1939 at the City Library in Alexandria, Virginia (Kate Barrett Branch, on the corner of Queen and Columbus). Acting on the guidance of Samuel Wilbert Tucker (1913-1990), an Attorney practicing law near the library, the five men, ages 18-22 and residents of the city, walked into the segregated library and requested a library card (George Wilson, a retired Army Sergeant, with assistant from Tucker, had been denied a card in March). Asked to leave by the Librarian, they selected books off the shelves and began to read them at the library’s table. The police were called and arrested the five men peacefully. The City delayed the disorderly conduct case against them, and the judge never ruled on it.
The story might have had legs, but as events overseas grabbed the headlines, news of the incident soon faded. The story lives on, however, at the nearby Alexandria Black History Museum, located several blocks north of the Barrett Library in the historic Parker-Gray neighborhood. Visitors entering the twin, A-framed facility at the corner of N. Alfred and Wythe Street are greeted with a large poster that documents this important Civil Rights event.
As a result of the sit-in, (also referred to a “sit-down strike”), the City of Alexandria, which had been considering a separate library before the sit-in, built the Robert Robinson Library for the black community in 1940. The small building that housed the library (the entrance was on N. Alfred) is now home to the Black History Museum’s permanent exhibit. Very nicely done, the self-guided tour chronicles the story of the African-American experience in Alexandria.
Across the foyer in the other room, the Parker-Gray Gallery offers a traveling exhibit. Recently on display was Decorative Expression of an Ancient African Tradition by DC-area artist Barbara Hardaway. Inspired by a Congolese tradition, she decorated bottles as a way of paying homage to African culture and greats like Martin Luther King Jr and Marian Anderson. Starting February 4 will be Grassroots, African Origins of an American Art, part of a special initiative by the National Endowment for the Humanities. A presentation of paintings by Horace Day is planned for April.
The Museum, which opened in 1983, is located across the street from the new Charles Houston Recreation Center, which sits on the site of the old Parker-Gray School. The museum has a small gift shop that sells books and videos and offers pamphlets and guides for historical tours. A DVD of the 1999 documentary film titled Out of Obscurity is available, which tells the story of the sit in. Next door is the Watson Reading Room. Over on the west side of town next to Carlyle is the Alexandria African-American Park where black history is remembered and honored through original headstones and bronze sculptures.
Anyone who wants to learn a little something about the early history of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as black history in Alexandria, should visit the Alexandria Black History Museum. At some point, be sure and also stop by the Barrett Library. The State of Virginia has approved a Historical Roadside Marker to be placed there to commemorate the 1939 Sit-In.
It’s not known when the plaque will be erected, but you can bet Samuel Tucker, who served his country as an officer in World War II, distinguished himself countless times in Civil Rights cases, and grew up just two blocks away, would be mighty proud to see it.
Alexandria Black History Museum
Admission: Free, $2
Parking: Free on nearby streets. Check signs for limitations.
Metro: Braddock Road (Yellow and Blue Line), four blocks away.
Hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 10 am to 4 pm, Sunday and Monday, Closed
Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics, and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia by J. Douglas Smith
The Trials of S.W. Tucker by Steve Ackerman, June 11, 2000, Washington Post
Audrey Davis, Curator at the Black History Museum
Steve Ackerman, who will be publishing a book on the Alexandria Library Sit-In this spring. I will follow up with a report when it is released.