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1939 Alexandria Library Sit-In 80th Anniversary

Throughout 2019, Alexandria Library once again hosted programs and events to recognize the 80th anniversary of the sit-in.

In February, the committee launched an internet-based trivia quiz hosted on the library’s homepage, focusing on the history of the Library, the City of Alexandria, and the Sit-In of 1939. It was designed to engage virtual library users, while the committee simultaneously ran a civil rights film festival for traditional library users. Prizes for correct answers were awarded for the trivia quiz. 

Throughout the year, once per quarter, one library branch location showed Out of Obscurity: The Story of the 1939 Alexandria Library Sit-In, a documentary made by a local filmmaker in conjunction with the Alexandria Black History Museum. Multiple screenings of Out of Obscurity gave the public ample opportunity to view the film and learn more about the historic event.

In August, all four library locations hosted celebrations to commemorate the anniversary of the sit-in. Prior to the screening of Out of Obscurity at Kate Waller Barrett Branch Library, several descendants of the five Sit-In participants were invited to attend a photo shoot, where they reenacted scenes from the Sit-In, including the iconic photo of the five men being led from the Barrett Library. These photos were turned into READ posters (see above) that were unveiled at the screening event and later distributed to all Alexandria Library locations, City Hall, and other partners like the recreation centers and the Sheriff ’s office. A resolution from the Virginia General Assembly was also read at the event.

The Sit-in celebration was creatively incorporated into the Library’s signature annual Bike Tour. This program hosted more than 40 bike riders who visited sit-in-related sites throughout the city and received a brief history lesson. 

The committee worked to initiate the library’s newest children’s service of circulating historic American Girl dolls. In partnership with the Virginia Railway Express (VRE), American Girl Doll Melody Ellison® rode a VRE train to Alexandria. This doll of the civil rights era was specifically chosen for the collection because she connected to the peaceful protest of 1939. Former African American staff members were interviewed, focusing on their childhood memories of Alexandria Library as a segregated library, their experiences as staff members in the newly integrated library system, and the library’s changes throughout the years.

The year of events culminated with a Descendants Panel in October 2019, where relatives of several of the Sit-In protestors were invited to share their family experience as black citizens in Alexandria, and how the Sit-In of 1939 affected their families, followed by a question and answer session. Most notably, the reading of Alexandria Commonwealth Attorney Bryan Porter’s petition to have the disorderly conduct charges against the protestors dropped was received with a standing ovation. Copies of the signed Order were given to each family represented. More than 200 people attended the program, filling the meeting room and an overflow room upstairs.


Last updated: January 2024