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80 years later, Alexandria library sit-in arrest charges are dismissed

Several African American men are escorted out of the Alexandria Free Library under arrest in 1939.
Several African American men are escorted out of the Alexandria Free Library under arrest in 1939. (Alexandria City Library)
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It was the quietest of protests.

Five young African American men sat reading at separate tables in Alexandria’s new whites-only library on Queen Street. They had just been refused library cards; in 1939, that was a privilege off-limits to black citizens.

But the demonstration caused an uproar. Within minutes, the police arrived to find about 300 counterprotesters and members of the press outside the building. After some consultation, police arrested the five men on charges of disorderly conduct.

Those charges have finally been dismissed, after lingering unresolved for 80 years. City leaders presented copies of a judge’s order Monday to the descendants of those demonstrators before an overflow crowd at the Charles E. Beatley Jr. Central Library.

“They didn’t do anything disorderly other than sit and read a book,” said Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter, who sought the dismissal of the charges at the suggestion of Mayor Justin Wilson (D). “Obviously it’s a symbolic gesture, but it’s a very, very opportune and appropriate gesture.”

Circuit Court Chief Judge Lisa Bondareff Kemler agreed. She signed an order Friday stating that William Evans, Edward Gaddis, Morris Murray, Clarence Strange and Otto Tucker were “lawfully exercising their constitutional rights to free assembly, speech and to petition the government to alter the established policy of sanctioned segregation at the time of their arrest” and that “sitting peacefully in a library reading books . . . was not in any fashion disorderly or likely to cause acts of violence.”

No laws had been broken and no criminal charges should have been filed, according to the judge’s order, which also cited U.S. Supreme Court and Virginia court decisions that overturned the “separate but equal” policies of the time.

Lawyer Samuel Tucker and the historic 1939 library sit-in

The sit-in is fairly well known in Alexandria, and the incident was fully covered in the black press. The city’s Black History Museum had an exhibition on it in 2009 and 2014, and The Washington Post Magazine wrote about the group’s attorney, Samuel W. Tucker, in 2000. Virginia erected a historical marker about the sit-in along North Washington Street, around the corner from the library, in 2008.

It all began when Tucker, annoyed that black residents were not allowed to use the then-new Alexandria Free Library (now the Kate Waller Barrett Branch Library), orchestrated and meticulously planned the demonstration for Aug. 21, 1939. Although 11 men had volunteered themselves to be arrested, only five showed up on the morning of the demonstration.

After each had been refused a library card by the assistant librarian on duty, the men each selected a book from the shelves and sat down, refusing to leave. 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!” according to material in the Alexandria Black History Museum’s archives.

Porter said the assigned judge, whose identity is lost to history, never adjudicated the case, which means the men were never declared innocent or guilty. That meant the charges were still technically outstanding. All the official records of the case have been destroyed, Porter said.

After the sit-in, Alexandria rushed to open the Robert Robinson Library for the city’s African American residents in 1940. The building is now home to the Black History Museum.

Joyce Evans, daughter of William “Buddy” Evans, said she didn’t learn about the sit-in until her father was interviewed for a documentary around 1990. “It’s great to see my daddy get the recognition he deserved,” she said.

The dismissal of the charges comes as Alexandria’s libraries are commemorating the 80th anniversary of the sit-in.

“The thing that moves me so much is it took 80 years,” said Deborah McSwain, 68, a descendant of Otto and Samuel Tucker. “To have this happen in my lifetime is just wonderful.”

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