Unsung Heroes: Virginia Library Sit-In

Throughout the month of February, in honor of Black History Month, we will be featuring unsung heroes and stories of the civil rights movement. You can find more stories of those well-known and not-so-well-known in our Digital Classroom’s “Making A Change” module. To access their stories, you must be signed into the Digital Classroom; registration is free. 

Police arrest the five men who sat and read in the segregated Queen Street Library.

Police arrest the five men who sat and read in the segregated Queen Street Library. (Courtesy Alexandria Black History Museum)

On Feb. 1, 1960, four black freshmen from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, N.C., went to the “whites-only” lunch counter at the F.W. Woolworth store and attempted to order coffee. This was the first of many lunch-counter sit-ins that brought national attention to segregated spaces in the south.

However, peaceful sit-ins began earlier, in Aug. 1939, when five black men entered the Barrett Branch of the Alexandria Library in Virginia. The men requested library cards; they were refused. Instead of leaving, the men took books off the shelves and began reading. The police came to the library, informed the men of the “whites only” policy and arrested the men for trespassing. (The charge was later changed to disorderly conduct.)

In 1939, sit-ins as a method of protest was a new idea; it was a method activists wanted to use in order to bring attention to segregation in places like libraries and restaurants. However, achieving national attention wasn’t easy. The story of the sit-in appeared on page three of The Washington Post; the front pages were dominated by news out of Europe.

In response to the sit-in, Alexandria built Robinson Library, a substandard facility, to serve the African-American community. Today, the library is used to house the Alexandria Black History Museum.

After years of fighting, civil rights leaders and activities declared victory when segregated public spaces, including restaurants and libraries, became illegal after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

  1. How did early protests such as this pave the way for the later efforts of the civil rights movement?
  2. When fighting for change, how can failed efforts be helpful?

Do you have an “Unsung Hero” that you would like included in the Digital Classroom? Visit our blog for more details on the Unsung Heroes Writing Contest.  

The Newseum Digital Classroom is a free resource featuring primary sources, interactives, historic newsreels, videos and lesson plans that bring history, journalism and the First Amendment to life for students.

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