Barrett Branch Library

Historical Significance

In August 1939 - more than 20 years before the sit-in at a Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter thrust the Civil Rights movement into the spotlight - five young black men held a sit-in at the whites-only public library at 717 Queen Street in Alexandria. One by one, the well-dressed men entered the library and politely requested library cards. They were each refused. They sat down and began to read. The librarian called the police, who arrested the men for trespassing and charged them with disorderly conduct. 

The protest was organized by African-American attorney Samuel W. Tucker, who was born in Alexandria in 1913. Tucker sued the city, and a local judge found that no regulation limited the library's use to whites. Rather than open the library to blacks, however, the city hastily built a separate library for blacks in the Parker-Gray neighborhood. Angered at the continued injustice, Tucker refused to accept a library card. The black community slowly accepted the Robert Robinson Library, however, despite its shorter hours and cast-off books. The 1939 sit-in has been chronicled in a documentary called "Out of Obscurity," available at Alexandria libraries. 

Tucker went on to win groundbreaking civil rights cases across the state. He served as the lead lawyer in Virginia for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P) in many school desegregation cases, and was a founding partner in the prominent Richmond law firm Hill, Tucker and Marsh. Tucker died in 1990. Ten years later, a new elementary school in western Alexandria was officially dedicated as the Samuel W. Tucker Elementary School.

The Barrett Branch Library (part of the Alexandria Library system) was built in 1937 and named in honor of Kate Waller Barrett, a humanitarian, social crusader and political reformer. The library was not integrated until the 1950s. The building at Alfred and Wythe streets that housed the city's black library, the Robert Robinson Library, is now part of the Alexandria Black History Museum.

Physical Description

Constructed on top of the Quaker burial ground, the 1937 Alexandria Library has been modified several times. The most recent improvement resulted in the archaeological recovery of 66 burials and the identification of nearly 100 more graves. The 1995 addition capped the burial ground and preserved the unexcavated graves. The individuals and artifacts which were excavated were reinterred in the front plaza of the library. The Alexandria Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends owns the burial ground and lot, while the city leases the land for use as a library. The new library contains special collections which include many archival sources for studying black history and genealogy.

Geographical and Contact Information

717 Queen St.
Alexandria, Virginia
22304
Phone: 703-838-4555

Cite this Page:

Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, “Barrett Branch Library,” African American Historic Sites Database, accessed September 23, 2017, http://aahistoricsitesva.org/items/show/34.
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