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1939 sit-in protest in Alexandria takes center stage at South by Southwest this week

(Left to right) William “Buddy” Evans, Otto Tucker, Edward Gaddis, Morris L. Murray and Clarence “Buck” Strange being led out of the Barrett Branch Library by police on Aug. 21, 1939. (via Alexandria City Library)

An interactive session at South by Southwest this year will reflect on the “links to today’s book bans” and past efforts to keep libraries segregated in Alexandria.

In 1939, a young Black man walked into the Barrett Branch Library and requested a library card, when he was refused, he picked up a book, took a seat, and started to read. The process was repeated until five black men sat in silence in the library reading books.

According to the Alexandria Library website:

On August 21, 1939, Alexandria Library staff and patrons watched as a young African American entered and asked to register for a library card. When he was refused, he picked up a book, took a seat, and began to read. Minutes later, another well-groomed and polite young adult repeated these actions. This continued until William Evans, Otto L. Tucker (the attorney’s brother), Edward Gaddis, Morris Murray and Clarence Strange occupied five tables. Each one sat in silence and read a book.

Flustered library staff called the police. As planned, Robert Strange (his older brother Clarence was one of the silent protestors) ran to Tucker’s law office to let him know that the police were on their way. Officers arrived and escorted the protestors from the library, arresting them for “disorderly conduct.” Samuel Tucker had called a photographer, who took a photo, and then quickly arranged for their release. He planned to challenge the city in court on the grounds that all citizens were entitled to equal access to public services. But the city, in an effort to resist integration, stalled the process with intense negotiations.

A panel discussion will feature Alexandria leaders along with two representatives from D.C.-based think tank New America.

“Join us to talk about this little-known demonstration for the right to read 85 years ago,” the event listing said. “Learn about the courageous youth who demanded access, setting a standard for later civil rights actions. Be inspired by today’s museum and library leaders working to set things right.”

The description said the panel will also include a discussion on contemporary book bans.

Panelists scheduled to speak include:

  • Audrey Davis, director of the African American History division of the Office of Historic Alexandria
  • Rose Dawson, executive director of the Alexandria Library
  • Lisa Guernsey, senior fellow and strategic advisor with New America
  • Jazmyne Owens, PreK-12 policy advisor for NewAmerica

The panel is scheduled for Wednesday, March 6.

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