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Queen Street in Old Town Alexandria

Gratuitous photo of me outside the library – mask in hand don’t worry

On August 21, 1939, the temperature drifted towards ninety degrees around noon. Five young men, all black, walked around the streets of Old Town Alexandria, making their way to the new library on Queen Street. Arriving, the group walked into the front door of the Alexandria Free Library (today the Kate Waller Barrett Branch Library). They each requested a library card, knowing they would be refused. Alice Green, the assistant librarian on duty, watched as they all picked a book from the shelves, sat down at different tables, and began to read. Horrified, the woman ran out of the library and into the home of head librarian, Catherine Scoogin. Entering the house, Green screamed, “Oh mercy, Miss Scoggin, there’s colored people all over the library!” Scoogin, who had just exited the shower, quickly dressed and rushed to the library with Green. Once there, Scoogin asked Otto Tucker, William “Buddy” Evans, Edward Gaddis, Morris Murray, and Clarence “Buck” Strange to leave the library. The men refused. 

Minutes later, police arrived to over 300 counter-protesters, spectators, and press members outside the library. Walking inside, they saw the five young men sitting quietly at the table. Police again asked them to leave the library. Refusing once more, the five demonstrators were led outside by policemen and arrested. 

Photo from WTOPNews article “Revisiting the Alexandria Library’s sit-in on its 81st Anniversary,” linked below. (Photo courtesy of Alexandria Black History Museum)

Once the police arrived, a fourteen-year-old boy named Bobby Strange who had been lingering around the entrance of the library ran out and down to a law office. The men’s lawyer, Samuel Wilbert Tucker, had coordinated the demonstration. He sat waiting a couple of blocks away in his Princess Street law office for word of the impending arrest. Strange ran to his law office and informed Tucker of the arrest, which Tucker had known would occur. All five demonstrators were charged with disorderly conduct despite remaining quiet and polite inside the library and outside. 

Their quiet and polite behavior, directed by Tucker, came up during the trial. Even Catherine Scoogin agreed that their behavior was orderly and not a problem, just their presence.  The court records were destroyed, and the unknown judge never adjudicated the case, causing the charges to still be outstanding 80 years later. 

Tucker’s plan for the demonstration stemmed from his own experiences of segregation and being denied a library card, along with retired Army Sergeant George Wilson. Even after the demonstration, when the city accelerated plans for the Robert Robinson Library, opened in 1940, Tucker never got a library card for the segregated branch. Librarian Scoogin personally delivered borrowers’ applications to Wilson and Tucker in January of 1940 for cards at the future segregated branch. Tucker, however,   responded with “I refuse and will always refuse to accept a card — in lieu of a card to be used at the existing library.” He later again took to the courts to assert his rights. He ultimately moved to southern Virginia and acted as a defense lawyer for many poor black people (more information about Tucker’s later legal career, including work with the “Martinsville Seven,” work with NAACP, and fight against racism can be found here).

The Robert Robinson Library did benefit the black community in Alexandria despite its racist intentions and subpar materials. The library became a community base for those in the surrounding neighborhoods, which primarily had African-American residents. Today, the building houses the Alexandria Black History Museum. 

The city erected a marker outside the library where the five demonstrators were arrested. The charges were officially dropped in 2019 by Circuit Court Chief Judge Lisa Bondareff Kemler, with support from Mayor Justin Wilson and Alexandria’s Commonwealth Attorney Bryan Porter. Judge Kemler signed an order declaring that Evans, Gaddis, Murray, Strange, and Tucker had broken no laws, and copies of the order were given to the demonstrators’ descendants.

Sources:

80 Years later, Alexandria library sit-in arrests are dismissed

Lawyer Samuel Tucker and his historic 1939 sit-in at segregated Alexandria Library

Revisiting the Alexandria Library sit-in on its 81st anniversary

80 Years later, Alexandria marks civil rights milestone

The Trials of S.W. Tucker
“Va. Library Way in Court Again,” The Afro American, Aug. 19, 1939, page 60. (found on google newspapers: https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=3E9AAAAAIBAJ&sjid=RgMGAAAAIBAJ&pg=4450,821689&dq=alexandria+library&hl=en)

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