Reflecting on What it Takes for a Public Library to Reckon with its Past

An Interview with Rose Dawson about Commemorating the Library Sit-In of 1939
Blog Post
Still frame image of Rose Dawson sitting for interview in 2021. Rose is an African American woman with hair pulled back in a bun, wearing glasses and a light blue blazer.
Videography by Colvin Underwood
Sept. 7, 2023

Editor’s note: This is part of a video interview series that illuminates the little-known story of the Alexandria Library sit-in of 1939. These in-depth interviews with researchers and community members not only add to the historical record—they can also deepen today's discussions of exclusion and inclusion in public libraries and schools.

Rose Dawson has been the executive director of the Alexandria Library since 2008—the first African American to hold that position. When she was hired, she was shocked to learn that she had never heard the history of the sit-in and made it part of her job to visit the Local History/Special Collections department once a week. Over time, she created a notebook full of information documenting the events leading up to and following August 21, 1939, at the Alexandria Library. With her staff, she has developed many events, exhibits, and historical markers to showcase the story. In 2020, the Alexandria Library won the Excellence in Library Programming Award from the American Library Association for its programs commemorating the sit-in’s 80th anniversary.

On August 25, 2021, I interviewed Dawson at the Charles E. Beatley, Jr., Central Library, the main branch of the Alexandria Library system. She discussed the significance of her role as the first African American leader of the library, the importance of involving the descendants of the original peaceful protestors in events celebrating the sit-in today, and the role of public libraries in shining a light on these kinds of stories. The conversation below, on video and as a transcript, is an excerpt of a longer interview and has been edited for clarity.

Did you always know you wanted to be a librarian or director of a library?

I tell people that I kind of fell into librarianship. I was at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, studying for a BA in education. And I had to take this “kiddie lit” course. And I love children. And so I was enjoying the course an awful lot and Dr. Mary Kingsbury [former professor at the School of Information and Library Science (SILS) at UNC] said to me, at the end of the course, “I think you'd be great as a librarian, and so if things don't work out for you [as a teacher], I hope you will consider that, come back and see me, and I'll be more than happy to write a reference.”

And so I remembered what Dr. Kingsbury said and touched base with her and successfully got accepted in their library school program and got a fellowship. And so I ended up being a children's librarian….I managed to get a children's position in the DC Public Library. And the interesting thing about that was the branch [that] I was assigned to was the Palisades Library Branch, which is off of 49th and V Street Northwest, so it's on the other side of Georgetown. And they had never had an African American children's librarian there. It was very interesting to find myself in that particular position. And so I ended up staying with DC longer than the three years because every time I got homesick—I was ready to go back home to North Carolina—DC is such a large system that you're able to then be transferred or be promoted to a position, and it felt like a totally new job and a new experience. And so, DC was a great training ground for me.

Tell us about those early experiences at the Palisades Library.

One of the things that was interesting was the fact that I was the first person in the children's room of color they'd ever had. And so initially the parents would come in and they would ask for the person I had replaced, and when they found out she wasn't there, they'd actually leave. And then they may come in and they would ask for my, the other librarian, but she was part time and so—Erica Stokes, who was a really good mentor to me—they wanted Erica: "Well, what's Erica's schedule?"

But you know the old adage, “out of the mouths of babes”? For children did not care. And as a matter of fact, I think the fact that I was young, and I was giving them a different type of attention, then they responded very positively to that. But specifically, I had this one parent, and she's one of the few who would come in, and she had asked and then she left, and then she asked for the other one, when she said...her daughter apparently had a learning disability. And I wasn't aware of that.

I was first assigned to the Palisades Library Branch on the other side of Georgetown [in Washington, DC]. And they had never had an African American children's librarian there.

And she had a project to do. And I had pulled the stuff; I talked to her about considering how she could go about doing the project. It was the mother who came back and let me know that the child had made an A, and she let me know that she had learning disabilities and that she had never had an A before. And I think that that was one of the—I don't know that she physically went and told others, you know that it was cool or I was okay or whatever—but that fact that she came to me and she shared, and then it seemed like after that it just kind of went away.

You were appointed deputy director of the Alexandria Library in 2005. Were any other African Americans in leadership positions there at that time?

We didn't have any others in leadership positions. I did have some African American staff working for me. And I had a librarian who was part time over at Special Collections. And I had a couple of other staff throughout the system. But no, there were no others in leadership positions.

And so, then, it was not long after that, in 2008, that you were then appointed to director of the whole system. What did that mean for you and for Alexandria?

Truthfully, I wasn't looking for a job. I was pretty happy in DC….[But] I did realize that in order to affect change the way I wanted it to happen for the kids, I needed to be in “the room.” So I needed to work to be in a higher level position.

When Patrick O'Brien [the director at the time] called to offer me the job [in 2005], I was a little surprised. I was really nervous because DC was all I knew and [I] came down and talked to him. And I knew who Patrick O'Brien was. Patrick was a major player in the American Library Association world.…I thought that I could learn a lot by working with him. And so I accepted the job.

And when I came on board, he said to me, “I think you have what it takes to be my successor and my interview was based on trying to do some succession planning, and so I'll try to help you with any and all things that you need. Because I hope you'll be interested in filling my shoes.” And so I was the acting director for a little while, and then [in 2008] I got the job.

On August 21, 2021, you hosted an event with Matt Spangler, the filmmaker of Out of Obscurity, a documentary from 1999 that tells the story of the Alexandria library sit-in. And during that event there was discussion about you coming on as the director in 2008, and chuckles about a late library leader named Howard Smith probably “turning over in his grave.” Do you mind telling us a little bit more about that?

So Howard Smith, Jr., I understand, was the library board chair before Louise Forstall [the chair when Dawson was hired]. After being hired, maybe a month or so, we were having a meeting, and after the meeting, Patrick and Louise had gone to the side [of the room]. I had made some presentation and they were very pleased with the presentation and so they were complimentary. And Louise said, “you know, can you imagine if Howard Smith were here; he's probably turning over in his grave.” And they chuckled, and I was like, “really?” And they were saying, “yeah, he would not have gotten this, he wouldn't have understood.” So that was what that was based on, that they felt very good that they did not let something like that stand in the way of them. As they stated: “You are our highest qualified candidate.”

It's yet another piece of the layers of what we have to kind of uncover here, in terms of understanding what you were coming into....Did that come through with any of your other interactions and in some of the legacies of racism that were part of the city at that time?

So you know, one of the things that I've done, once I became aware of the story of the sit-in—which is a fabulous story from 1939—but over the years, I started to wonder, okay, so from '39 to 2009: What in the world, you know, took place? And there are still a few individuals who worked for the library system who were African American, and so capturing or getting a chance to hear their stories of what it was like to work here has been fascinating for me.

So I am trying to capture those stories as well. One was [a librarian on staff named] Gladys Davis. Mrs. Davis was instrumental in making sure that others were hired within the library.

Part of your work includes elevating the story of the library sit-in of 1939. When did you first hear about the sit-in?

When I became deputy director and I was doing the tour of the branches, I went over to the Barrett library, and within the Barrett library [is] the Local History/Special Collections branch. And one of the staff there, Mr. George Combs, says to me, “Oh, you're the first, you know, African American to serve as deputy director, and you know, we had one of the first sit-ins occur here in 1939.”

To tell you the truth, I thought I misheard him. I thought that he had made a mistake.

And I said, “Excuse me, and what did you say?” And he repeated the [year] for me. Now remember, I grew up in North Carolina. So I grew up with the whole thing of the Greensboro sit-in, [North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College students] going down, students going over to the Woolworth lunch counter and sitting down and being arrested. And so I'm like, how, how did I miss this? I've been in the library business for a minute and you're trying to tell me that there is a story? There was a sit-in? So I still had some doubts. I just couldn't believe I didn't know about this story.

So when I was scheduled to go over there and work at the desk, I got to George and he was showing me and he went and he pulled out all of this stuff to show me that, yes, indeed, this event did occur in Alexandria. And I was just floored. I pride myself on African American history. I'm very interested in it. I took a number of classes at [UNC] Chapel Hill. They were a little ahead of the time, at the time. They had an African American Studies department when I went there, so I had had the course but had never heard the story.

I grew up in North Carolina.... with students going over to the Woolworth lunch counter and sitting down and being arrested. And so I'm like, how, how did I miss this story?

So I made it my business, every weekend after that, to come down and I would work on it. I would come on Sundays, because the Sunday staff had not met me and they only worked on Sundays and so [this way] they could meet me. And I would come down and I would visit a branch on the weekends. I would do that branch for a couple of hours. And then I would leave, and I'd go over to the Special Collections library and they [would] pull stuff out for me, and I just started taking notes and I created this notebook. I had this real fat notebook. You know, initially I thought, you know, two inches [of binder pages in the notebook] was going to be enough. But over the years I've crammed stuff in it, and it's kind of fallen all out and everything, but it was a wonderful notebook that has all this information in it about the sit-in.

So that is when you learned that the Alexandria Black History Museum had commissioned Out of Obscurity, the documentary on the sit-in, yes? What was the interplay between the Alexandria public library and the museum?

Now that's what was interesting, because in 2009, you know, I'm director, and I'm thinking, “okay, how are we going to celebrate this?” And the staff informed me, “well, we tend to let the Black History Museum celebrate it.” And I'm like, “why?” “Well,” [George] says, “you know, because the Robinson Library is the end result. [It was built and opened by the City of Alexandria in 1940 as the Black library after months of legal proceedings related to the sit-in.] The Robinson Library is now the location that is the current Black History Museum. And so it's part of their history.” I said, “yes, but it's a part of our history. And it's the events that occurred here that make that happen. So we need to also be celebrating.”

And I will say, George, who was very good about making sure that the story was told, he said to me, he says, “well, boss, I feel a little funny, being this, you know, fat, white, Jewish guy trying to tell and celebrate the story,” and so I said, “Well, look, I'm the first African American library director, and I don't see how we can't tell the story.…”

Were there some in the library who weren't “celebrating” because they may have felt embarrassment or discomfort that the outcome of the 1939 sit-in was not integration of the library?

I think that they did feel a little awkward because we were on the wrong side of the argument. And, but, because I was who I was, and they were very supportive of me, then they were like, “okay, Rose, you tell us what you want this to look like and we'll do it.” And so we did. We had that five-year period to plan. And as we prepared for the 75th, we decided that we would celebrate it as a system, just as we would celebrate the library's anniversary….So when we celebrated the 75th, it was not just the Special Collections branch over in the Barrett library. Every single library branch in Alexandria celebrated the sit-in anniversary.

And then five years later, you and the city held an event for the 80th. Tell us about that.

So we'd done a really good job, but where we didn't hit the mark and fell short was, we did not involve the families. We did not manage to make contact with the families, the descendants of the participants. So for the 80th, that was the focus. The focus was that we would work very hard to try and reach out and to get the families [of the descendants] involved. And we would only do the programming at a level in which they were happy with it.

And for those who may not know the full story, there were five men who participated in the sit-in, young men 18 to 22 years of age. Their names were Buddy Evans, Edward Gaddis, Morris Murray, Otto Tucker, and Clarence Strange. So these men had the courage to go into that library to ask for the library card, knowing they'd be denied, and to go to the stacks to pick up a book off the shelves and sit down and read. Those five men then each had children or grandchildren or….So when you say descendants, that's what you mean?

Exactly. And so we really struggled to make contact with the families and then when we managed to get some names and everything, we convinced a few of them to come and meet with me over at the Barrett library in Special Collections. And just basically I let them know [that] first of all, I apologize[d] that we had celebrated this event five years previously and did not include them. And that was what we wanted to fix. We shared with them how important the story was. We didn't know to what degree and how much information they knew. And so we had an awful lot of documentation and information on the table for them to look at.

I apologized that we had celebrated this event five years previously and did not include [the descendants]. And that was what we wanted to fix.

They heard me out. And I shared that at this point in time that I was hoping to do a descendents’ panel so that folks could see them. I would function as the interviewer and just ask them some questions. I would give them information in advance….And they were on board. I'm happy to say that they provided support and their willingness to participate, and they attended some of the other events that we had. Their presence was very much appreciated. People would ask them questions. So we received a lot of press from that and so I was really proud of involving them.

And then one of the really nice things that occurred was the fact that in our research, while there was a newspaper article that said the charges had been dismissed, we could not find any proof that that did indeed happen. And so through the Commonwealth’s Attorney, Bryan Porter, he was successful in petitioning the court to dismiss all charges against those gentlemen. And we were able to give that document to those family members that evening. And it was just, you know, a very touching and gratifying experience.

What is the role of public libraries, generally speaking, in lifting up these stories? Why is it important?

During the 75th anniversary, we created an exhibit, and we are hoping to expand it into a traveling exhibit, and that's where it has a dual purpose. So if we're able to have it travel to another public library, for example, in Virginia, then that will have the students come to using that public library. It will also challenge that public library to question: when did they make their services available? When did they integrate?

I think that as librarians, that's one of the things that we can do, to spread the story and to help with this, the opening up of our history. One of the things about history—it's shaped based on what one is taught. And as I explained, I only knew about the sit-in in Greensboro. And subsequently as an adult, I have learned about the sit-in that occurred in Petersburg. I’ve learned that Greenville, South Carolina had a library sit-in, in which Reverend Jesse Jackson was a major player.

And so it's all about who's telling the story. And since the story has the opportunity to grow and change based on the different people who tell it, then I need for our children to recognize that the history I learned actually is still being told.

This interview is part of an interview series and the beginning of a larger project underway at New America to tell the story of the Alexandria Library sit-in of 1939. We see the story as opening new avenues for examining the state of education and learning in the U.S., and we want to ensure our work is as collaborative, engaging, and relevant as possible. If you have questions or would like to connect with us, please email project lead Lisa Guernsey at

Related Topics
PreK–12 Education Racial Equity