The 1939 Library Sit-In Project

An Effort to Learn From and Amplify a Little-Known but Powerful Demonstration for Civil Rights in Alexandria, VA
A graphic showing a collage of photos about the library sit-in with a blackboard and newsprint as the background.
New America
Jan. 11, 2024

In 1939, five young Black men peacefully demonstrated their right to read in the Alexandria public library, which at the time was declared to be for White citizens only. The men entered the library, requested library cards, and were denied. Instead of leaving, they chose books from the shelves and sat down to read, only to be arrested and escorted out by police.

Taking place well before the lunch counter sit-ins and bus boycotts of the 1950s and ‘60s, this event and the stories behind it illuminate the history of inequities still plaguing our education system and offer inspiring examples of how to overcome them. Throughout 2023 and 2024, New America will be conducting research, recording video interviews, and developing events, digital exhibits, and teaching materials about this historic protest and what it can teach us today about access to books, educational materials, libraries, and schools.

Our advisors and partners include leaders at the Alexandria Library, the Alexandria Black History Museum in the Office of Historic Alexandria, New American History, and the Alexandria City Public Schools, as well as authors, historians, and national digital media experts. This project is supported with funding from the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, the National Historical Public Records Commission, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Related Topics
Digital Media and Learning Racial Equity PreK–12 Education