Alexandria Black History Museum

Remembering Injustices and Triumphs at Alexandria Black History Museum

Friday, January 30, 2009

Does the name Samuel Wilbert Tucker mean anything to you?

Sadly, probably not. In 1939, Tucker organized five young black men in one of the nation's earliest peaceful sit-down strikes, at an Alexandria public library. The men were protesting the library's refusal to give them library cards. Tucker, a lawyer, defended the men after they were arrested.

The incident led to the building of the Robert H. Robinson Library in 1940 to serve Alexandria's black community. It remained in operation until the early 1960s, when libraries were integrated; today it is home to the Alexandria Black History Museum.

With Barack Obama in the White House, it may be hard for some to imagine that we are just a few generations away from blacks being denied library cards. The museum chronicles such local injustices for posterity.

"It's an American story," museum director Louis Hicks said of the exhibitions' focus on Alexandria's piece of history. "It's important that we don't forget this."

The museum packs a lot of information into its three-room space. The main exhibit, which is open indefinitely, follows the history of blacks from Africa to Northern Virginia. Another room features a rotating exhibit (the next one opens Thursday and focuses on the work of Mary Ellen Henderson, a teacher who fought for education equality in Falls Church), and the third room is dedicated to a gift shop and the building's history.

A self-guided tour of the main exhibit begins with African artifacts that tell the stories of societies that existed before the slave trade. From there, the timeline follows the development of the middle passage and the horrors inherent in ferrying people across an ocean. A poignant drawing shows how the slave ship Brookes could hold 450 people if they were lined up like luggage and every inch of the ship was used; the Brookes often carried as many as 600 slaves.

At this point the exhibit begins to concentrate on the daily lives of slaves in Alexandria and other parts of Northern Virginia. Visitors can try picking up a heavy water bucket that a young child would have had to carry several times a day and learn about the food rations slaves were given to sustain them through their work. For example, a slave at Mount Vernon was given two pounds of cornmeal and a half-pound each of fish and meat.

For many slaves, African religions and customs, such as voodoo and the wearing of charms, were also a part of daily life. Customs were kept alive in secret and often practiced in the woods and homes.

The last part of the exhibit recalls the indignities former slaves faced after being freed. They were forced to register at the Alexandria courthouse, where detailed descriptions of freed slaves were recorded in bound volumes, one of which is on display.

Hicks and his assistant Audrey Davis hope that the focus on how Alexandria fits into the country's broader history will inspire locals to be more interested in this area because, as Davis says, "there is so much interesting history in everybody's back yard."

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