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In 1939, five young black men walked into Alexandria, Virginia’s public library to request they be issued library cards. When borrowing rights were denied on the grounds the facility was for whites only, the men took books from the shelves and began to read. This peaceful protest led to their arrest and foreshadowed the coming Civil Rights Movement. We learn about the event and the legacy of protest organizer Samuel Wilbert Tucker today as we mark the 75th anniversary of the event.
- Nancy Noyes Silcox author, 'Samuel Wilbert Tucker: The Story of a Civil Rights Trailblazer and the 1939 Alexandria Library Sit-In'; librarian
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, love, Latinos and conflict, all found this weekend in the African Diaspora film festival. But, first, 75 years ago today, five young black men entered the public library in Alexandria, Va., one by one and requested library cards that would grant them borrowing privileges. When each request was denied on the grounds that the facility was for whites only, the men picked books off shelves, sat down and began to read.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWith that, they staged one of the nation's first sit-ins, foreshadowing a strategy the Civil Rights Movement would deploy in decades that followed. Here to tell us more about the man behind that protest, Samuel Wilbert Tucker, and his legacy, is Nancy Noyes Silcox. She is the author of "Samuel Wilbert Tucker: The Story of a Civil Rights Trailblazer and the 1939 Alexandria Library Sit-In." She's a retired teacher and school librarian. Nancy Noyes Silcox, thank you for joining us.
MS. NANCY NOYES SILCOXThank you for inviting me.
NNAMDIYou too can join this conversation. Give us a call, if you're curious. 800-433-8850. Or have you heard Samuel Wilbert Tucker's story before? Tell us where and what you remember most about it. 800-433-8850. Send us email to email@example.com. You can shoot us a tweet @kojoshow or go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Nancy Noyes Silcox, before we talk about the man himself, can you describe for us the Alexandria, Va., that Samuel Wilbert Tucker grew up in?
SILCOXWell it was quite different than the Alexandria today. In Tucker's day, Alexandria was a segregated city. And Tucker lived on Queen Street in what is called the Uptown section of Alexandria. But it was segregated. And although Tucker's neighborhood was a mixed neighborhood, there were white families and black families living near to each other, which is not uncommon on the borders between segregated neighborhoods. But his area on Queen Street was only a block and a half from -- his house was a block and a half from the library that was built.
NNAMDIBut he also apparently lived right across the street from Ebenezer Baptist Church, but didn't go there.
SILCOXNo. The family went to Zion Baptist Church on South Lee Street. And that was the family's church. His father grew up a couple of houses away from Zion. And that was the family church. They went every Sunday. His father had lots of jobs in the church.
NNAMDIYou kept your allegiance to the church. Apparently, he was raised in a family that stressed the value of education. Where did young Samuel Tucker go to school? And what field did he eventually go into?
SILCOXWell he -- he actually started second grade at Parker-Gray Elementary school, which was the segregated school in Alexandria that finished in eighth grade. And to get a high school education, he had to go take the streetcar across in to D.C. to Armstrong High School and walked two-and-a-half miles both ways, to get to...
NNAMDITo get from the streetcar to the school?
SILCOXTo get from the streetcar to the school.
NNAMDIOh, yeah. That's -- that's paying a lot of attention to education.
SILCOXEducation was important. His mom was a teacher. He learned to read when he was four. Education was very important for the family.
NNAMDIWell, he also had an early encounter with police when he was a teenager. What happened when he and a pair of friends were riding a streetcar from D.C. back to Virginia in the year 1927?
SILCOXThat was when he was 14. And the streetcar, from my research, I understand that the streetcar had a back that could be shifted forward or backward so that the seat of the -- could face either the white section or the black section. And the boys wanted to sit facing each other. And they moved the seat. A white woman got on the streetcar and walked past empty seats and demanded that the boys...
SILCOX...get up. And they refused because they weren't doing anything wrong. And when they got into Alexandria, she found a policeman to arrest them and they were arrested for disorderly conduct on the streetcar. They were found guilty. But then when the case was appealed, a jury of five white men found them not guilty. And from that he really learned that in a court of law you could sometimes get justice.
NNAMDIThat had to be really different, that in the year 1927, an all-white male jury would find these young black men innocent of what they did.
NNAMDIAnd it obviously inspired him to get into law. He then later goes on to Howard University.
NNAMDIAnd after graduating from Howard University, goes on to law school?
NNAMDIDidn't go to law school?
SILCOXHe didn't go to law school. He could have gone to Howard University Law School. But he says that he didn't want to continue going to school broke. And so he read the law. His father had a friend who was a lawyer, who was his mentor. And he worked in the law office from the time he was about 10 years old. And he instead read the law on his own.
NNAMDIAnd became a lawyer.
SILCOXAnd took the bar exam in 1934 and passed.
NNAMDIOn his own.
SILCOXOn his own, without going to law school.
NNAMDIWe're talking about the remarkable story of Samuel Wilbert Tucker with Nancy Noyes Silcox. She is author of the book, "Samuel Wilbert Tucker: The Story of a Civil Rights Trailblazer and the 1939 Alexandria Library Sit-In." You can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you worry the stories of the pre-Civil Rights Era and quieter figures from that movement are being lost to history?
NNAMDIGive us a call, 800-433-8850. Or if you've heard stories in your family about your family and friends, about their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. You can also send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. Or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. 75 years ago today, when that protest at the library occurred, Samuel Wilbert Tucker was not among the protesters at the Alexandria Library. But he did mastermind the event. What happened that day?
SILCOXHe knew that the protesters would be arrested for disorderly conduct. And he coached them on how to carry out a nonviolent protest. He wanted them to be respectful, peaceful. And he knew that he would be defending them. So he couldn't be one of the protesters if he was going to be defending them.
NNAMDIThe protesters. So he wasn't a part of the protest himself. What happened that day?
SILCOXThe -- after the young men came into the library, one by one, about five minutes apart and were refused library cards, and they sat down to read, they were eventually -- the police were eventually called and they were arrested. Tucker said later, that the protest was so peaceful and the arrest was so peaceful that some people suggested that he had coached the police on how to handle themselves.
NNAMDIWell, that certainly hits a chord, a responsive chord today with what we're experiencing around the country. What was the reaction within the community, including the authorities and local media, to those arrests?
SILCOXWell, again, Tucker planned well. And he had notified the media that the protest was happening. And he had a lookout, the younger brother of one of the protesters ran back and forth to Tucker's law office to tell him what was going on and tell him when the police were coming. And the reporters and photographers were already waiting outside, and about 300 people as well were waiting outside to see the protest.
SILCOXWord spread. Word spread quickly.
NNAMDIThree hundred people were waiting around to see the protest.
SILCOXTo see what would happen.
NNAMDIThere were reporters, et cetera. What was the ultimate response of the community?
SILCOXWell, not the one that Tucker wanted. Alexandria very quickly built a separate and not equal library for the African-American citizens in Alexandria.
SILCOXHis objective was to integrate the public library.
SILCOXAbsolutely. And he wanted all of Alexandria's citizens, the taxpaying citizens, to be able to use the same library. And so he refused to use the Robinson Library that was built very quickly. It actually opened April 24, 1940.
NNAMDIYou say it was separate but not equal.
SILCOXIt was smaller. The books were mainly used. The furniture was old. The librarian was paid half as much as the librarian at the library for whites. Tucker was disgusted.
NNAMDIBut that library is, today, a museum.
SILCOXYes. And Tucker appreciated irony. He would appreciate the fact that now that Robinson Library houses the permanent collection and permanent display of African-American history in Alexandria. And it's part of the Black History Museum.
NNAMDIOur guest is Nancy Noyes Silcox. She's a retired teacher and school librarian and author of the book, "Samuel Wilbert Tucker: The Story of a Civil Rights Trailblazer and the 1939 Alexandria Library Sit In." Please don your headphones because I'm about to speak with Howard in Clifton, Va. Howard, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
HOWARDWell, thank you. And thank you for this program. I knew Attorney Tucker. He and my father and my mother were really very good friends. And I remember spending a summer with him down in Emporia and just spending a lot of time with him. He was a brilliant attorney. He helped my father a lot. He helped a lot of people. He was a ghost writer and gave ideas and concepts and thoughts on pursuing civil rights. And he was so -- I can still see him, listening to your guest speak, I can see him at the dinner table now.
HOWARDHe was so intense. It's funny, but really, really, truly, truly dedicated. And I asked him one day, well, why don't you write a book or something about these experiences. And he said, I'll have to leave that to the historians because I'm too busy pursuing civil rights. I just want to mention one other thing. His wife, Julia, was wonderful. Just a -- they were like an aunt and uncle to me. And lastly, he was -- participated in World War II. And he had -- he taught me how -- he was an outdoorsman.
HOWARDAnd when I would spend the summers -- some summers with him and his -- and Julia, Aunt Julia, out in -- down in Emporia, and he taught me how to shoot. And we'd go shooting rabbits and squirrels and things of that nature. But really just a brilliant attorney. And he had his hands in so many things that we don't know about.
NNAMDIVery glad to hear that reflection, Howard. Do you think he had some influence on you?
HOWARDOh, absolutely. I'm an attorney.
HOWARDAs a matter of fact, I'm a retired Army Colonel. And I -- part of my familiarity with weapons and the military came through him, because he -- I didn't -- my father was not in the military, but also, just that -- that sense of dedication and that kind of thing, you know.
HOWARDIn the military now -- well, I'm retired now, but when I was in there -- I'm in private practice now -- but I translated the concept of civil rights from Virginia -- my father was a civil rights attorney and my mother was involved in civil rights -- I translated that into the military where, an organization that is somewhat repressive in nature by its operations, but it's ultimate objective is to achieve civil rights and to defend the free world. But the veracity and the thought process and the dedication has to be the same.
NNAMDIClearly, he had an impact on you. I'm going to do two things, Howard. I'm going to have Nancy Noyes Silcox respond. And then I'm going to put you on hold so that we can take your number in case Nancy Noyes Silcox wants to get in touch with you -- I could see that in her eyes -- at a later date. So care to respond to what Howard just said?
SILCOXYes. Howard, thank you so much for calling in. In my research, I found many stories from people who knew Tucker, but I believe that there were so many more out there. I'm hoping that one of the things that my book will generate will be these conversations and memories that can be shared by people who went through the Civil Right Movement and faced discrimination, that they can share those stories with people in their family and young people who have no idea about what it was like really to face that kind of discrimination.
NNAMDIHoward, thank you very much for your call. I'm going to put you on hold. We'll take your number and pass it on to Nancy Noyes Silcox after the broadcast is over. Nonviolence and sit-ins became hallmarks of the Civil Rights Movement, but in 1939 in the nascent years before the movement coalesced, they were not so familiar. Just how unusual was this form of protest in the U.S. at that time?
SILCOXWell, it was not unheard of. And Tucker, through his studies at Howard University, became familiar with Mahatma Gandhi's civil rights protests and peaceful protests in India. And around that same time there were labor strikes, labor sit-down strikes they called them. In fact, the newspaper article that announced the library sit-in called it a sit-down strike.
NNAMDIThey called it a sit-down strike?
SILCOXA sit-down strike, but there were labor strikes. But this, from what the research shows, was the earliest sit-in for civil rights.
NNAMDIIn 1939, 75 years ago today. We move on now to Gretchen in Washington, D.C. Gretchen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GRETCHENThanks very much. I'm really enjoying this program. I grew up in Alexandria in the '50s as a white person. And I remember how segregated it was. My family was from Montana and so my parents always said to us, you know, this is not right. This is not the way things should be. But at Murphy's there was the regular soda fountain counter and then there was a small standup counter that sold hotdogs and things that only the African Americans could us.
GRETCHENAnd there were white and I think it was called even colored restrooms, separate, and also drinking fountains. I used that library many times and I don't remember seeing any African Americans in it. I didn't know about Tucker and I'm really eager to read about him. I went to St. Mary's grade school. There were only white children. The black children went to St. Joseph's. And there were two parishes, St. Mary's parish and St. Joseph's parish. And essentially St. Mary's was white and St. Joseph's was black.
GRETCHENSo I really appreciate knowing about this person. And in the '60s when I was away at college I remember my mother writing and saying there are sit-ins in Alexandria. And she was so happy about it because things were finally beginning to change. But it was a very strange experience to live in a place that you knew things weren't right and yet didn't quite know what to do about it at the time. So thanks very much for the program.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Care to comment? Not really. She speaks...
NNAMDIWell, I want to talk a little bit about your own experience because though you settled in Virginia, you spent your childhood in Minnesota and you traveled with the Peace Corp. What was your experience of the Civil Rights Movement?
SILCOXI really had limited direct experience with the Civil Rights Movement. I was in Peace Corp. from 1968 to '70.
NNAMDIAnd spent that time in Guyana, South America, which I had just left a year before. But obviously you experienced a lot of the things that I experienced growing up while you were there. But that's when the Civil Rights Movement, or part of it was unfolding here.
SILCOXRight. And that's during the time that there were a lot of riots going on in the states. And we just got the New York Times Week in Review. And it sounded like the whole country was burning up.
NNAMDIIt seemed from far away at the time. Tucker went on to be part of a storied Richmond law firm, argued four cases before the Supreme Court including one considered by many to be the case that produced results in desegregating schools. Yet his story is not so well known, even though Green versus County School Board of New Kent County was a very significant case. Why do you think he's not so well known? And do you think that might change?
SILCOXWell, I hope it will. I think there are many people who feel that he never got the full recognition for his work that he deserved. The -- he said about the Brown decision that it didn't go far enough. And that was in 1954. And the decision was reviewed again in '55. But it didn't give any mechanism for integrating. And it allowed people to delay and have freedom of choice plans. And it wasn't until 1968 when the Supreme Court finally said to school boards that they needed to desegregate immediately, show some progress in segregating.
NNAMDIFor the benefit of Howard who called in and others, I should mention that this book also talks about his -- that is, Samuel Wilbert Tucker's service in World War II. But what is it that motivated you to study, to research on him and write this book?
SILCOXI was the first librarian at Samuel W. Tucker Elementary School in Alexandria. It opened in 2000 and was named for Tucker for his civil rights work and for his dedication to desegregating public schools.
NNAMDISo you had a reason to be interested in him. There may -- there's a lot that could be learned from his story but I wonder what lessons from his storied career would you most like to see people embrace and consider today?
SILCOXI think that an important lesson that comes out of Tucker's life and his work is the idea that you can see things that are wrong and do something to make them right. He spent his whole life fighting injustice and racial discrimination and working to desegregate public schools. And he didn't give up. He loved research. He liked -- he was on the debate team at Howard. He liked creating a strong compelling argument. So that was important to him and that was his strength.
NNAMDISignificant parts of his legacy. The name is Samuel Wilbert Tucker. The name of the book "The Story of a Civil Rights Trailblazer and the 1939 Alexandria Library Sit-In." The name of the author Nancy Noyes Silcox. Thank you so much for joining us.
SILCOXThank you so much for inviting me.
NNAMDIWe're going to have a short break. When we come back, love, Latinos and conflict all playing roles this weekend in the African Diaspora Film Festival. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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