Libraries, Segregation, and Civil Rights
One of the first sit-ins in the United States happened at a segregated public library. It is important for libraries to recognize their own troubled history while helping communities celebrate and surface their own.
Librarians have a reputation for upholding the rights of their communities by creating protected spaces for people of all backgrounds. This is why it is surprising to many people that libraries used to be spaces that participated in acts of injustice towards the Black community. These stories need to be heard, however, and libraries and library organizations across the country are working to address this dark period of our nation’s history
The early 1960s in America was defined by the Civil Rights Movement, where the ultimate goal was for African Americans to achieve the rights and equality granted to white citizens. The Black community had faced discrimination in all forms in areas such as housing, employment, and education as well as segregation in public facilities and the denial of voting rights. The Civil Rights Movement wasn’t only marked by acts of courage displayed by iconic figures such as Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr. — there is in fact an extensive history that libraries played in the fight towards equality. Because many public libraries in the South were just as segregated as the rest of the country, libraries became an early battleground for the Sit-in and Civil Rights Movements. These peaceful protests were important milestones in gaining equal access. Today these sit-ins have been recognized by libraries and the nonviolent protesters involved are honored in their communities.
Alexandria Library Sit-Ins
One of the first sit-ins in the country occurred at the Alexandria Library in Virginia in August 1939. The Alexandria Library (now known as the Barrett Branch Library) served over 30,000 people and while African Americans in the city paid taxes, they weren’t allowed to use the library.
This all changed with the actions of Samuel Wilbert Tucker. Tucker was a local attorney who spent years trying to establish equal access for African Americans to community resources. When the public library of Alexandria refused to change its ways, Tucker gathered a group of young African American men to demonstrate at the library by performing an act of civil disobedience.
On August 21, 1939, Tucker and this group of men walked into the Alexandria Library and requested library cards. When the staff at the library turned them away, he picked up a book and sat down to read rather than leaving. These actions were repeated by the men whom Tucker selected. Each occupied a different table with a book. Five tables were occupied by this peaceful group before the library staff called the police and the men were escorted out. Tucker had this sit-in carefully planned, as he had arranged for a photographer beforehand to capture a picture of the men being arrested and led out of the library. These photos were then released to the public.
While the local media ignored the events at the Alexandria Library, the case Tucker made against city courts for equal access was quickly reported in African-American newspapers across the country. Tucker became ill during this process and was unable to personally pursue the case. Despite that personal setback, community leaders forged ahead. The Alexandria Library Board approved the construction of a “separate but equal” public library designated for the African American community and hired an African American librarian.
Tucker remained adamant about his goals for equality and while African Americans were able to use libraries, he was not satisfied and refused to accept a library card at the newly-built library in lieu of where he had made his original request for a card. It was decades later before charges against Tucker and the other men at the library sit-in were dropped. Tucker remained a leader throughout the war against segregation and was eventually honored by his town and the Alexandria Library.
Nashville’s Civil Rights Room
The city of Nashville was also the location of significant public desegregation sit-ins. This city began its journey towards ending segregation and discrimination in September1957. It was initiated by a group of parents and their young children who registered at five previously-segregated public schools. These acts of bravery took place under a court order after the Supreme Court declared segregation laws invalid.
A few years later, Nashville was the site of many nonviolent protests where students from Black colleges confronted segregation in a variety of public spaces. The Civil Rights Room in the Nashville Public Library overlooks the area of the street where these protests took place and uses the space to honor the work of the people who worked to gain equal access for people of all colors.
This room specifically highlights the Civil Rights Movement in Nashville from the desegregation of schools and libraries to lunch counters. Installed there is a symbolic lunch counter for patrons of the library to look over the timeline of local and national events in the struggle for civil rights. This timeline is enhanced by black and white photographs, video presentations, a teaching classroom, and even the original Ten Rules of Conduct that the peaceful protesters carried with them during their sit-ins.
Preserved Collections of Birmingham History
The Nashville Public Library is not the only library that has put extensive efforts into documenting the struggle for civil rights. Birmingham, Alabama is deeply rooted in the racially-charged and segregated history of African Americans in the United States. For this reason, the Birmingham Public Library has collected and preserved materials and stories related to the Civil Rights Movement for over fifty years.
The compilation process was slow to start but picked up once the Department of Archives and Manuscripts was established at the library in 1976. This department was able to systematically collect records of all kinds and all levels of government and organizations. Later, grant awards allowed the Birmingham Public Library to rescue many civil rights related treasures including the papers of the former Birmingham city commissioner.
Many of these collections are available for access online and contain over 400,000 photographs and 30,000,000 documents. The subjects these archives cover a span from Antebellum Alabama to Martin Luther King Jr.’s jail cell. The Birmingham Public Library’s Archives is recognized as the most comprehensive and heavily-used collection on the Civil Rights Movement. It was through the dedicated work of library staff and researchers that this local history is preserved.
Recognizing the Injustices of the Past
Over the years, both libraries and library organizations have learned from their history and focused on access, equity, diversity, and inclusion in practice and in their public statements. In June 2018 the governing Council of the American Library Association (ALA) released a historic resolution that openly apologized to the African American community. This resolution apologized for “wrongs committed against them in segregated public libraries” and “commended those who risked their lives to integrate public libraries for their bravery and courage in challenging segregation in public libraries and forcing public libraries to live up to the rhetoric of their ideals”. This resolution was accompanied by an event, The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South: Civil Rights and Local Activism, where audiences gathered to hear the stories of sit-ins and library protests from first-hand participants themselves.
The Black Caucus was also established in 1970 after many ALA members felt that a separate group was needed to serve the needs of the African American community. The caucus advocates for the “development, promotion, and improvement of library services and resources” and “provides leadership for the recruitment and development of African American librarians”. Since its inception, the caucus has been recognized with many awards such as the IMLS Laura Bush 21st Century Library Program Award and the IMLS National Leadership Grants for Libraries Program Award.
It’s clear that public libraries play an important role in African Americans’ fight towards change and equality. Black history is comprised of endless stories worth preserving and sharing with the world. Public libraries were not only a key player in the Civil Rights Movement, they are also critical for the collection of accurate and vivid representations of this history.