The five black men who staged a anti-segregation sit-in at the then-Alexandria Library are led out by police on Aug. 21, 1939. (Courtesy of Alexandria Black History Museum collection)

Alexandria’s black residents were starved for books in the 1930s.

Segregation reigned in this Southern town. Black children could attend a blacks-only elementary school, but were barred from the white high school. African Americans were not allowed to use public libraries, and that situation was accepted by the white establishment until Aug. 21, 1939.

That morning, five well-dressed young black men separately walked into the then two-year-old library on Queen Street, right in the heart of one of the city’s black neighborhoods. Each requested a library card and each one was refused because of his race. But instead of leaving the building, each man walked to the stacks, pulled out a book, sat down at separate tables and began to read.

According to material in the Alexandria Black History Museum’s archives, the library page ran to the residence of head librarian Catharine Scoggin and called out, “Oh mercy, Miss Scoggin, there’s colored people all over the library!”

By the time Scoggin consulted with the city manager and police officers turned up at the library, about 300 spectators, including a few reporters, had gathered outside. The young men inside, who did not respond to requests to leave, were placed under arrest for disorderly conduct and walked out.

The protest at the Alexandria library on Aug. 21, 1939, was the brainchild of attorney Samuel W. Tucker, an ardent opponent of Jim Crow laws in Virginia. (Courtesy of Alexandria Black History Museum collection)

A journalist snapped a photo of the five as they walked out, one lighting a cigarette on the way to jail.

Samuel W. Tucker, 26, the African American attorney who had organized the sit-in, had learned the power of nonviolent protest from a teacher who had studied with Mahatma Gandhi. Tucker’s previous interactions with the courts had taught him that the law, even within the culture of segregation, could be used for justice.

Tucker, who died in 1990, is slowly being recognized as one of the early leaders of the civil rights movement. His efforts to break segregation’s grasp continued his whole life; he filed about 150 civil rights cases before state and federal courts, and won an important case in 1968 before the Supreme Court, Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, in which the court unanimously ruled that schools have an “affirmative duty” to desegregate.

The city’s Black History Museum features an exhibition, “Sit Down and Take a Stand: Samuel W. Tucker and the 1939 Alexandria Library Sit-In,” running through Aug. 18, that tells the story of the library sit-in, Tucker and the fight for desegregation in greater detail.

“He understood that this was just a first step,” said Audrey P. Davis, director of the museum. “His name isn’t among those you think of as a leader in the movement, but all the leaders knew him.”

A Washington Post magazine story about Tucker in 2000 quoted former U.S. senator Edward Brooke (R-Mass.), saying, “He is really one of the most brilliant minds that I know, a man of great integrity. He is always on the firing line when he believes injustice is being done or some wrong needs to be righted.”

Tucker was born June 18, 1913, in Alexandria and attended the all-black Parker-Gray elementary, a school for which his father had advocated. When it came time for high school, Tucker’s only option was to take the streetcar to Washington, D.C., to Armstrong Manual Training High, because Alexandria’s high school was for whites only. When he was 14, he was riding that streetcar from Washington with his younger brother Otto, his older brother George and another friend when a white woman claimed the boys were impinging on the “Whites Only” section of the trolley. Since Otto was only 11, Samuel and George were arrested on a handful of charges.

From childhood, Tucker had run errands, prepared court papers and researched cases for Thomas Watson, an attorney who rented office space from Tucker’s father. Now Watson took up his young protege’s case. A jury of five white men found him innocent.

That incident, he later said, made him realize the power of the law. He graduated from Howard University in 1933 and studied for the bar exam on his own, passing at age 20.

In March 1939, Tucker and retired Army Sgt. George Wilson attempted to obtain library cards at the Alexandria Library, which is now called Barrett Branch Library. Both were turned down, and Tucker soon took the case to court. But as the case inched forward, Tucker learned that the city planned to create a blacks-only library in response.

Tucker did not want another Jim Crow establishment in Alexandria. He realized the facility, if built, would be substandard — with fewer and older books, limited operating hours and used typewriters.

So he called upon the community to find young men willing to be arrested. Eleven trained for the event, but on the day of the protest, only five appeared: Otto Tucker, 22; William “Buddy” Evans, 19; Edward Gaddis, 21; Morris L. Murray, 22; and Clarence “Buck” Strange, 21. Bobby Strange, 14, served as a runner between the library and Tucker’s law office five blocks away.

The attention paid to the sit-in prompted the city to rush the construction of the Robert Robinson Library for the city’s African American residents. As Tucker feared, it was filled with castoffs. The charges against the five young men were dismissed, and the city issued library cards to black residents, but they could only be used at the segregated library.

“I refuse and I will always refuse to accept a card to be used at the library to be constructed in lieu of a card to be used at the existing library,” Tucker responded in a letter to library officials.

The community embraced the Robinson Library, but Tucker never accepted it as a proper response. The library’s building is now the home of the Black History Museum.

During World War II, Tucker served as an officer in the all-black 366th Infantry Division and fought in Italy. He returned to Virginia after the war, moved south to Emporia, Va., and became the NAACP’s lead lawyer in the state challenging segregation. Tucker fought against multiple efforts by white lawyers to disbar him, the museum’s exhibition says, but he continued to fight to get African Americans on juries, to prevent executions and to force governments to live up to the law.

“If he hadn’t staged that demonstration,” Davis said, “it would have taken far longer before black Alexandrians could use a library.”

To the rising civil movement, the library sit-in also proved that nonviolent protest could help crack segregation’s stubborn foundations.