Public in Name Only

Public in Name Only is a microhistory of one of the first library sit-ins in the nation. This protest was similar to other nonviolent protests about equality and civil rights. It was organized and led by Samuel Wilbert Tucker, who was a young, black, native Alexandrian, who was also a local attorney. He was inspired by previous NAACP higher-education cases and lawsuits, as well as grassroots movements. The protest was to get the attention of the library board and Alexandria city council. The sit-in was planned to be right after the 30th annual conference of the NAACP in the summer of 1939 in Richmond, VA. The first part of Tucker’s plan was for his friend to apply to a library card and get denied. He legally ordered the library to grant him the card. In preparation of the sit-in, he trained local young black men in tactics used in nonviolent protests and civil disobedience. After the sit-in during August of 1939, all the protesters went to court and Tucker served as their attorney. In retrospect, it is possible that the judge and prosecution had a conflict of interest, being involved in the library and the city politics. Eventually, a separate branch of the library is opened for only people of color to use.

The introduction of the book provides essentially the thesis and an overview of everything that will be covered. The first chapter discusses the history of education for people of African descent from the first European Settlements through until the 1930s. This chapter also includes history of black journalists and the history of libraries and how different libraries approached segregated or integrated library branches, the first being in the late 19th century. Chapter 2 sets the context about the social and civic inequalities and discrimination in the 1930s. It also discusses Samuel Wilbert Tucker’s family and personal history leading up to and after the sit-ins in 1939. It also includes the history of the NAACP and their founding, as well as their involvement in education discrimination for students and teachers, such as the teacher’s union in Norfolk in 1937.

Chapter 3 begins with the history of Alexandria, starting in prehistory and continuing through the Colonial Era, Reconstruction post Civil War, as well as focusing on the race relations leading up to the Civil War and the want for equal jobs and freedom. The chapter ends in the Great Depression, which is when the sit-ins take place. Chapter 4 is all about the Jim Crow Era. It starts with Reconstruction and the beginnings of violence, political disenfranchisement, segregation, boycotts, and oppression. The fifth chapter goes from talking about general information about libraries in Virginia and the history, to focus on the one in Alexandria. The library in Alexandria suffers from economic difficulties, all the while they are expanding and building more spaces. The latter part of the chapter discusses the effects after the sit-ins, but not direct outcomes, as well as the library from the Civil Rights Movement to today. Chapter six focuses on the motivation and purpose behind the sit-ins, but also general nonviolent protests. It highlights the fact that everyone during this time was used to the status quo and knew the societal norms and expectations. However, local activism, specifically the picket line in DC to protest against lynching directly motivated Tucker to lead the protest.

Chapter 7 is all about the sit-in. It starts with the library board meetings to ask to open a separate branch for the African-American community members. This would follow the separate but equal clause, but the board deemed it to be too expensive. During the sit-in on August 21, 1939, six young men participated and were escorted out quietly by the police after an hour. Samuel Wilbert Tucker met the men at the courthouse and represented the men in court proceedings. The library board increased road blocks for people of color to get access to the library. After a lot of pressure, the board agreed to open a separate branch, but the construction of the building was rushed, very small, and included few books, none of which included people of color in them. The chapter ends with the aftermath and how the library’s resources were used by local black schools. Chapter 8 discusses the effects of the sit-in, such as pressuring local authorities, and indirectly led to local, state, and national laws to ban segregation, especially in academic and community settings. It goes further to discuss the importance of libraries and how the protesters were trailblazers and pioneers who paved the way for future sit-ins and nonviolent protests. The epilogue wraps everything up, but not into the neat bow as one might expect, rather, it discusses the City of Alexandria dropping all charges in 2019 and the library hosting a ceremony and programs to engage the community. There is also a biography of Samuel Wilbert Tucker now published, as well as the sit-in is part of the curriculum taught in Virginia. However, the book ends on a bitter note with a statement from the American Library Association, essentially forgetting the institutionalized racism embedded in the history of libraries in the US.

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