Alexandria, VA – It takes courage to fight society when you know you’re right, and 80 years ago five African American men made Alexandria history. On Monday, Aug. 21, 1939, William “Buddy” Evans, Morris Murray, Edward Gaddis, Clarence “Buck” Strange, and Otto Tucker threw a proverbial rock at a hornet’s nest when they were denied library privileges at the Kate Waller Barrett Branch Library and sat down, started to read, and refused to leave.
Alexandria’s shining example of courageous civil disobedience was commemorated at the Charles E. Beatley, Jr. Central Library on Monday, Oct. 21, in a standing-room-only event with a panel discussion with descendants of sit-in participants. The audience included residents, city staff, the entire city council, and former elected officials.
“if you come up against somebody who’s treated poorly then you take a stand, but there’s a way to do it,” said author Kimberley Evans-Reed. “My grandfather did something that could have gotten him arrested, could have gotten him beat down, maybe even go after people in his family. I mean, [my daughter] wouldn’t be here, my father wouldn’t be here, and I wouldn’t be here if he had been killed. And that’s what was at stake.”
Taking a Stand by Sitting Down
Alexandria established a whites-only public library in 1937, and denied library cards to U.S. Army Sergeant George Wilson and attorney Samuel W. Tucker. The pair tried working with City Manager Carl Budwesky and the city attorney before filing a writ of mandamus, which forced the city librarian to issue them library cards. Two years later, their organized group of five men made their mark by sitting down in the library and reading books.
“They were 19 to 22 [years old]. What courage. What courage to challenge everything they knew, the system that they had grown up with, but yet they did that,” said Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson, who also presented a city proclamation. “And it was a spark, a template that was used for decades in this country to challenge systems that were manifestly unjust.”
The men were arrested while reading in the public reading room and charged with disorderly conduct – charges which stuck until last month, when Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter successfully petitioned the Alexandria Circuit Court to have them dismissed. The court found that the men 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.”
Rose Dawson, executive director of the Alexandria Library, said that the sit-in was ahead of its time.
“For a person like me, who grew up in the schools, North Carolina, I always heard about the Greensboro Sit-In, but that didn’t happen until the early 60’s,” Dawson said. “But here we are in ’39 and Tucker has figured out how they need to prepare for what the laws were on the books that they would possibly try and arrest them for. And even if they didn’t violate any of those, the chances were they were going to be arrested.”
Less than a month after the protest, City Manager Budwesky presented city council with a plan to buy land and build the blacks-only Robert Robinson Library, which opened the following year. The library was named after a freed slave who co-founded the William McKinley Industrial School, and it served African American residents for more than 20 years.
Stephen A. Martin is the nephew of sit-down protestor Morris Murray, but only found out four years ago that his uncle participated in the event. Martin, a graduate of Parker Gray High School, became an Alexandria Police officer in 1968 – and was the second African American to join the force.
“[The Protest] was something that was done that is more appreciated now than it was then,” Martin said. “Sometimes we do things as they occur and we don’t realize the value of it at that time.”