Watson Reading Room

Historical Significance

Opened in 1995, the Watson Reading Room is a non-circulating research library of African-American history and culture. It is named in honor of Charles and Laura Watson, African Americans who amassed large landholdings in Alexandria during the 19th century. After Charles Watson died in 1874, Laura Watson and her sons developed the Sunnyside neighborhood near what is now West Glebe Road and Mount Vernon Avenue. Many small black neighborhoods were formed in Alexandria after the Civil War, possibly encouraged by the new legal protections offered during Reconstruction.

After the end of Reconstruction in Virginia in 1870, Sunnyside would have provided an opportunity for home ownership to African Americans rebuffed by banks and shut out of white residential areas by Jim Crow laws. In 1992, Sunnyside residents decided to use funds from a terminated home ownership assistance program to build the Watson Reading Room. The site selected for the reading room, next to what is now the Alexandria Black History Museum, was rich in African-American history as well. During the Jim Crow era, it held a black church, school, and drug store. It is located in Uptown, which boomed after the Civil War as newly emancipated African Americans migrated to Alexandria to find work.

The Watson Reading Room allows visitors to use a collection of books, periodicals, and videos. It also functions as a community meeting space, and hosts professional storytellers who share the African-American tradition of oral history with the community. The staff of the Alexandria Black History Museum, with which the Reading Room is affiliated, also has an Oral History Committee that audio- and video-tapes local senior citizens, providing first-person insights into the life of Alexandria's African-American community in the 20th century. 

Physical Description

Located next door to the Alexandria Black Resource Center, the Watson Reading Room functions as part of the center, providing a comprehensive collection of documents and resources centering on African American history.

Geographical and Contact Information

906 Wythe Street
Alexandria, Virginia
22314
Phone: 703-838-4356
Fax: 703-706-3999

Cite this Page:

Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, “Watson Reading Room,” African American Historic Sites Database, accessed May 28, 2017, http://aahistoricsitesva.org/items/show/478.
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