Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Alexandria Library Civil Rights Sit-In, 1939

On August 21, 1939 five young black men between the ages of 18 and 22 walked individually into the Alexandria, Virginia "whites only" public library and asked for a library card. When they were refused they walked to the stacks selected a book and sat down quietly at a table and began to read. The police were called and they were arrested for disorderly conduct. This was the first civil rights sit-in in a public facility in America. It was organized by Samuel Tucker, a mostly unheralded civil rights activist. This story reminds us of one of the darker sides of library history. This situation didn't just exist in Alexandria, Virginia. It was prevalent throughout the Southern states. By the time I started my first professional library job at the public library in Charlotte, NC in 1967, the situation, fortunately, had changed drastically. At the Charlotte library facilities were open to all and there was an aggressive outreach campaign to reach all parts of the community with library services. I was in Alexandria recently and admired their impressive main library building which I'm sure can now be used by anyone. Extensive coverage of the Alexandria Library sit-in can be found on the Alexandria Black History Museum web site. A nice article about Samuel Tucker can be found HERE. Interestingly, very little about this historic event can be found on the Alexandria Library web site. I became aware of this story through the special event envelope produced by Pushin' the Envelope Limited Edition Cachets which is shown above. I have information on how a library can go about producing souvenir envelopes such as this one HERE.

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