Taking a Stand: Samuel Tucker and the 1939 Alexandria Library Sit-In - NBC4 Washington

Taking a Stand: Samuel Tucker and the 1939 Alexandria Library Sit-In

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    NEWSLETTERS

    In 1939, an African-American lawyer organized a peaceful sit-in at a library in Alexandria, Virginia, years before better known civil rights protests. News4's Pat Lawson Muse takes a look at Samuel Tucker and the Alexandria Free Library protest. (Published Monday, Feb. 6, 2017)

    It was a sweltering August day in 1939, and William "Buddy" Evans was face-to-face with a police officer in the Alexandria Free Library.

    Looking up from the pages of his book, the 19-year-old had one question.

    "What would happen if we don't leave?" he asked. 

    Four other well-dressed black men were also in the library, reading quietly at different tables. They came to the Queen Street library together, but sitting apart was essential to their plan. 

    They were there to make a statement: that every Alexandria citizen had the right to read at the public library. Their sit-in is believed to be one of the earliest in American civil rights history. 

    Just a few blocks away, Samuel Wilbert Tucker sat in his law office, waiting for word about the protest he had organized. 

    Tucker never went to law school; he studied for the bar exam on his own and was sworn in to the Virginia State Bar just five years before the sit-in. 

    "Most people aren't aware of these small lawyers, but they were making a difference," said Audrey Davis, the director of the Alexandria Black History Museum.

    According to the museum, the event was "an early crack in the wall of segregation" and paved the way for future African-American achievements in Alexandria. 

    "Most people don't realize his legacy," Davis said. "He was doing a lot of civil rights work."

    At the time of the sit-in, Tucker had a petition pending about the use of the library by the city's black residents. Media reports implied the case could have far-reaching influence on other segregated public facilities.

    'It Was the Policy Not to Admit Colored Persons'

    In 1937, the city built the Alexandria Free Library for its white residents. The city's black residents were denied access -- even though their tax dollars helped finance the library. 

    "It was the policy not to admit colored persons," former librarian Kate Scroggins said in an interview featured in the 1999 film "Out of Obscurity."

    Black residents who were interested in reading traveled to Richmond or Washington, D.C., to use libraries there, or they scrounged for books in their own community.

    The library board later appointed a committee to look into the need for a blacks-only library in the city, but months went by without any decision on the matter. 

    Sick of waiting, Tucker came up with a plan. 

    He went to the library with George Wilson, and both men requested library cards. When they were denied, Tucker took Wilson's case to court, hoping to force the city to issue a library card. 

    An article in a local newspaper said the case was likely to reverberate throughout Virginia and the "whole Southland."

    Inspired by the civil disobedience of Mahatma Gandhi in India and the United Autoworkers Union strike in Flint, Michigan, Samuel Tucker organized the library sit-in to test whether the City of Alexandria could legally keep its black citizens out of the public building. 

    Taking a Stand

    On August 21, 1939, William "Buddy" Evans, 19; Otto Tucker, 22; Edward Gaddis, 21; Morris L. Murray, 22; and Clarence "Buck" Strange, 21, walked into the Queen Street library one by one and requested a library card. When they were refused, they each walked to a shelf, grabbed a book and sat down. 

    The men did not speak and each sat at different table -- Samuel Tucker wanted to make sure they did nothing to warrant a disorderly conduct charge. 

    Outside, 14-year-old Robert "Bobby" Strange watched the quiet protest from a window, running to Samuel Tucker's office to alert the young lawyer once the police had been called. 

    Samuel Tucker called the media, and when the police escorted the five men out of library, over 300 spectators were waiting outside. 

    The five protesters were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct -- even though witnesses testified the five were quiet and orderly during their time in the library. 

    "Can't find law to fit case of Negro boys who went into 'white' library to read - not disorderly conduct, so what it is?," read an article in The Pittsburgh Courier in 1939.

    Samuel Tucker defended the men at their trial, and the charges were dropped after the arresting officer admitted the men had been arrested for their race and not their behavior.

    In Wilson's case, the court ruled blacks could not be denied access to the Alexandria Free Library, because no black library was available.

    But the ruling didn't produce the results Samuel Tucker hoped for. 

    Wilson and Samuel Tucker were issued library cards, but they could only be used at the new blacks-only library the city was rushing to construct.

    Named for a freed slave and beloved Alexandria pastor, the Robert Robinson Library opened on the corner of Wythe and North Alfred streets in 1940, according to the Alexandria Black History Museum.

    Constructed at half the cost of the Alexandria Free Library, the tiny, one-room building was filled with tables, chairs, a librarian's desk and shelves of used books. 

    "When you compare the Queen Street Library with Robert Robertson Library, it was like comparing the mansion to the slave quarters," Samuel Tucker's sister, Elsie Thomas, said in an interview featured in "Out of Obscurity."

    While many residents were pleased with the new library, Samuel Tucker was disgusted. 

    "I refuse to accept a card to be used at the library constructed and operated at Alfred and Wythe streets," he said in a letter to the librarian at the Alexandria Library. 

    "He never stepped foot into the Robinson Library," Davis said. 

    Preserving the Past

    The Robert Robinson Library closed in 1962, and today, it is the home of the Alexandria Black History Museum. 

    The museum is the first site totally devoted to the city's African-American history. 

    Samuel Tucker and the 1939 sit-in were featured in an exhibit in the museum in 2014. While the story is no longer featured prominently, the museum continues to tell the stories larger museums don't have the room to profile.

    "There were people in every community standing up," Davis said. "We tell the smaller stories that they don't have the space to tell."

    A current exhibit at the museum explores the day in the life of a slave and issues of preservation in the city. 

    In addition to its main building, the museum includes the Watson Reading Room and the Alexandria African American Heritage Park, a satellite location that includes a sculpture garden and a one-acre 19th century African-American cemetery.