More than two decades before the Freedom Rides, long before the Woolworth's sit-in in Greensboro, N.C., five local African American men participated in a quiet protest of their own.
On Aug. 21, 1939, those five men were arrested when they refused to leave the whites-only Alexandria Free Library on Queen Street after being denied library cards. Their nonviolent protest ultimately led to the creation of a black library in the city.
Saturday, nine area actors reenacted the "sit-down strike" at the Kate Waller Barrett branch of the Alexandria Library, where the original protest took place 60 years before. The reenactment was filmed by a local documentary producer and was sponsored by the Office of Historic Alexandria and the Alexandria Black History Resource Center.
Audrey Davis, the assistant director and curator of the center, said that the sit-in was one of the first demonstrations for civil rights in the country, though it is little known, even in this area.
"Most people have no idea that's how the center got started and the [Alexandria] libraries were integrated," she said.
In the 1930s, public facilities were segregated throughout the South. In Alexandria, there were separate schools and restaurants for blacks and whites. Blacks were not even allowed to try on clothes in many department stores. Harry Burke, chairman of the Alexandria Society for the Preservation of Black Heritage, recalls that the five-and-dime store at the corner of King and St. Asaph streets had three restrooms, one labeled "white ladies," another "colored women" and the third for white men.
The idea to try to integrate the library was conceived by Samuel Wilbert Tucker. Tucker went on to become one of Virginia's best known civil rights attorneys, but he was then a 26-year-old who had learned about nonviolent civil protest from Howard University theology professor Howard Thurman.
At Saturday's reenactment, Tucker's widow, Julia, wept as the five African American actors solemnly took their places at a library table, one by one. They opened books and began to read. Marian Anderson's velvety voice--singing "Deep River"--poured out of a nearby loudspeaker.
"I don't know why I was so sad, but I was," said Tucker, a slight woman in her late eighties. "I suppose the feeling is that we have opened the door to so many public facilities, including libraries, but we really haven't opened people's minds very far."
Two actors wearing uniforms borrowed from the local police department approached the seated men and asked them to leave. They refused.
There was no real argument, no shouting or bullhorns--nor were there in 1939, at the time of the real demonstration. It was all very polite.
"It was very quiet, very peaceful," Davis said. "They were very cordial about the whole thing."
The protesters--Tucker's little brother, Otto, 22; Edward Gaddis, 21; Morris Murray, 22; William Evans, 19; and Buck Strange, 20--had entered the library and asked for library cards. When they were refused, each sat down at a separate table.
None of the men are alive today, but Evans said in a 1990 interview with The Post: "The whole setup was that we would each sit at a different table and read a book, and that we would remain silent the whole time so they couldn't arrest us for disorderly conduct."
A library clerk saw them and panicked. In Saturday's reenactment, the actor playing the clerk yelled: "There are colored people all over the library!" Apparently, this was a direct quote.
The police were summoned. An officer named John Kelley was reluctant at first to arrest the young men, whom he knew, but eventually did take them into custody.
By the time the men left the library, a crowd had gathered outside and a waiting news photographer who had been tipped off to the protest by Tucker snapped their picture. There they are, the five young men, the picture of dignified civil disobedience. At Tucker's suggestion, they were dressed up: pinstripe suits and straw hats. They are squinting into the hot August sun.
Tucker stage-managed the whole affair from his law office a few blocks away and enlisted a 14-year-old boy to run back and forth delivering updates.
The men were charged with trespassing, which was later changed to disorderly conduct. Ultimately the case stalled when a local judge failed to make a final ruling on the matter.
But in the controversy's aftermath, the city council appropriated $2,500 in 1940 and built a "colored branch" of the local library on North Alfred Street. The building now houses the Alexandria Black History Resource Center.
The Alexandria library system was not fully integrated until the mid-1960s, although librarians began quietly allowing African Americans to check out books by the 1950s.
Because of that, Tucker considered his crusade a failure.
Today, however, local historians see it differently, even though Alexandria's sit-in remains relatively unknown in the annals of civil rights.
Matt Spangler, 28, the Alexandria filmmaker who is working on a documentary about the event, said he had never heard of the sit-in until a visit to the Black History Resource Center last year. He quickly became fascinated by it and put up half the $12,000 it cost to make the film. The other half came from local grants. When completed, the film will be given to the center for educational use.
Helen Miller, 82, an Alexandria resident and schoolmate of Otto Tucker's, said she hoped that events such as Saturday's reenactment would help people remember what Tucker did 60 years ago.
"People need to know that these things didn't come easily," Miller said. "We didn't have all this handed to us on a silver platter. We marched, we picketed, you understand? We cried, you know?"