In the early 1950s, Reggie Simms mended damaged books so they could remain in circulation at the Purcellville Library. But he was not allowed to check them out for personal use.
For two decades after it opened in 1937, the library was open only to white patrons. Simms and other African Americans were excluded until the library was desegregated on April 9, 1957.
On Saturday, the library will mark the 60th anniversary of that milestone with “Cross the Line,” a day-long program focusing on the desegregation of public facilities in Loudoun County. Simms will join other African Americans from that era in sharing memories of the cultural shifts in Loudoun as segregation died a slow death in the 1950s and ’60s.
The library will observe the anniversary of its desegregation by looking at “the emergence of the African American community in political, cultural and social life in western Loudoun,” Purcellville Library branch manager Karim Khan said.
“The desegregation of the library is a signifier, but in and of itself it’s a short story, unless you were right there at the time, and there’s so much more to talk about,” Khan said.
The program will begin at 10:30 a.m. with activities honoring Josie and Samuel Murray, who led the effort to open the library to African Americans, as documented in a 2001 Washington Post article by local historian Eugene Scheel.
Scheel’s article recounted how the Murrays, who ran an upholstery business in Purcellville, pursued legal action against the library after Josie was denied permission to check out a book about curtains. The Murrays’ efforts resulted in narrow votes by the Purcellville Library Board and the Loudoun Board of Supervisors to overturn the practice of segregation at the library.
A group of teens will commemorate the Murrays’ activism with a public reading of Scheel’s article. Historian James Hershman will follow with a presentation on the equalization campaigns of the 1930s — a segregation-era movement to improve the quality of education in schools for African Americans.
At 2 p.m., Simms, Harold Jackson and Gertrude Evans will discuss their memories of Loudoun’s civil rights struggles.
Evans, 68, of Leesburg, participated in demonstrations in summer 1963 that led to the desegregation of the Tally Ho movie theater in Leesburg. She was one of about a dozen teens who stood outside and held signs in protest for several days, until the theater changed its policy that restricted African Americans to the balcony.
Evans recalled that “West Side Story” — the musical about tensions between white and Latino youths in New York — was playing at the time. Although she found that the seats on the ground floor of the theater were more comfortable than those in the balcony, she wasn’t able to fully enjoy the experience.
“The first time going there was very uncomfortable,” Evans said. “I was scared to death.
“When you know you’re not wanted somewhere, you just don’t feel comfortable” going in, she said. “That’s what segregation does.”
Evans also remembers the efforts to desegregate other public facilities in Leesburg, such as drugstore lunch counters, the Thomas Balch Library, and the local bowling alley and swimming pool.
Purcellville resident Simms, 82, said that, as a teen, he did jobs such as “taping up torn books” for Gertrude Robey, a founder of the Purcellville Library. Not being permitted to check out those books was a fact of life that he simply accepted, he said.
“That was just natural, living in the South,” he said. “That’s just the way it was.”
Jackson, 75, of Purcellville, said the segregated schools he attended — Carver Elementary School in Purcellville and Douglass High School in Leesburg — were sources of books for the African American community.
“We did have a good library at Carver School,” he said. “And we had an excellent library and a librarian [at Douglass High School]. And that’s what took the place of not being able to go to the public library.”
Jackson, a cousin of Josie Murray, said that although he was brought up to accept segregation, he thought change was inevitable.
“I knew that someday, this would come about, because Martin Luther King had always preached it,” he said. “So I knew that someday, it would get better.”