Libraries as Geographies of Opportunity, Citizenship, & Resistance

By Samuel Huff 

The 1939 Sit-In, organized by local attorney Samuel W. Tucker, was the first sit-in of the civil rights movement and demonstrated the nature of resisting spatial segregation by spatial occupation.

This ad from the Fairfax Herald demonstrates the availability of library resources to Black residents of Northern Virginia. 

Considering our progress and data so far, one could easily assume that in a society so oppressive, African Americans would inevitably be disillusioned with libraries and the potential they offered - that these spaces would be perceived as yet another deeply embedded tumor of afrophobia and its normalization in the cancerous anatomy of the American landscape. It's certainly true that some Black residents of Northern Virginia did inevitably experience the very human reaction of despondency in the face of the the oppression that libraries had come to embody; but for many, these spaces represented much more than their socially-imposed nature of disenfranchisment.

In certain instances, libraries actually meant the same thing to African Americans as they did to their white counterparts. Both communities understood the library as a significant asset to provide children with knowledge and entertainment. Newspapers would advertise story book readings and new children’s books for both branches. The educational value that libraries provided black youth was widely perceived as their primary purpose by both parents and faculty.(31) Before branches were constructed, and in many cases even thereafter, makeshift black libraries often operated out of local segregated schools and provided what services they could to the black community.(32)  Once they were constructed, librarian’s would regularly visit classes and youth organizations to engage young readers. The Robert Robinson Branch of the Alexandria library would record that increased use of the facilities by children was “proof positive of the value of (the) work.”(33) The black community also saw the educative potential libraries had to offer adults as well; the Robinson branch makes references to “adult classes” at a local school that stopped by to familiarize themselves with the library.(34) But the juvenile literature and menial adult options restricted that potential from transforming reality for the community at large.

This 1949-1950 annual report of the Arlington Library Association was the only publicly available pronouncement of the integration of its branches. The announcement went largely unseen by Arlington's black community.

To many Black Virginians, libraries were metaphors for larger concepts and therefore were necessarily spaces of resistance. In 1939, Samuel Wilbert Tucker, a local black lawyer, orchestrated what would come to be understood as America’s first sit-in at the Alexandria Public Library after multiple attempts to secure library cards for other black residents.(35) Tucker saw beyond the library specifically and  pursued the site as a fundamental extension of American citizenship, which Black Americans were being unjustly denied. Where white citizens saw the library as a site of demonstrating their citizenship, African Americans like Tucker saw it as a place to claim their citizenship. But spatial resistance wasn’t restricted to confronting “white-only” libraries. After being excluded from the Arlington Library Association in 1940, the black community of Arlington organized the Henry Louis Holmes Library Association to provide library services to black residents.(36) The program for the Holmes library’s opening lists several themes of American Education Week, including “Strengthening Civic Loyalties…Perpetuating Individual Liberties…(and) Building Economic Security”, before assuring the reader that “Our Library Will Help Build These Ideals.”(37) Through spatial expression, the organizers of the Holmes Library created a material and imaginative geography based in their resistance to the socially constructed geography surrounding them.


The segregation of libraries in Northern Virginia was a system of classification that placed black individuals beneath the dignity of their white counterparts, thereby casting them outside of their humanity. By constructing material and ideological space between black individuals and the various, contextual identities which ordain their personhood, society manifested a cartographic geography that visibly isolated and invalidated blackness.(map) Yet, as we see with Tucker, segregation also fashioned libraries as inevitable venues for resistance by generating within the African American community a vested interest in those spaces as ideological geographies. (38)

31. Robert Robinson Library Monthly Report, September 1948, Administrative Reports 1939-1945 file, Administration and Finance Collection Series 1.2 of Alexandria Library Records, Kate Waller Barrett Branch Library.
32. “Colored Library Opened in Vienna.” Fairfax Herald, September 6, 1946, vol 65, no. 8 edition. Virginia Chronicle: Digital Newspaper Archive.
33. Robert Robinson Library Fourth Annual Report, Administrative Reports 1939-1945 file, Administration and Finance Collection Series 1.2 of Alexandria Library Records, Kate Waller Barrett Branch Library.
34. Robert Robinson Library Monthly Report, April 1948, Administrative Reports 1939-1945 file, Administration and Finance Collection Series 1.2 of Alexandria Library Records, Kate Waller Barrett Branch Library.
35. “Five Colored Youths Stage Alexandria Library ‘Sit-Down’: All to Face Court Today on Charge Of Disorderly Conduct for Efforts to Compel Extension of Book Privileges.” The Washington Post (1923-1954), August 22, 1939, ProQuest Historical Newspapers Archive.
36.Barbuschak, Desegregation, 26-27.
37. Holmes Library Opening Program, 1940, Holmes Branch, Arlington Public Library, RG 29, Arlington County Public Library Department Records, Community Archives, Center for Local History,Arlington Public Library.
38. McKittrick, Demonic Grounds, xiv.
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