Writing a Biography of the Lawyer Behind the Library Sit-In of 1939

A Q-and-A with Author Nancy Noyes Silcox
Blog Post
Photo of White older woman with short brown hair and glasses, wearing a black vest and teal scarf, sitting in  an elementary school library with shelves of library books behind her.
Videography by Regis Vogt
Dec. 6, 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.

For years, very few people outside of the African American community in Alexandria, VA, had heard of the library sit-in of 1939. But in the late 1990s and early 2000s, that started to change, as the Alexandria Black History Museum (then known as the Black History Resource Center) curated and hosted exhibits, as a young documentary filmmaker named Matt Spangler became interested in the story, and as the school system decided in 1999 to name its newest school after Samuel W. Tucker, the organizer of the sit-in.

Nancy Noyes Silcox was hired to be the librarian at that new elementary school, and over the years her interest in the story of Tucker grew. After she retired in 2011, she knew that she wanted to write a book about him. That book, Samuel Wilbert Tucker: The Story of a Civil Rights Trailblazer and the 1939 Alexandria Library Sit-In, came out in 2014. It is written for middle-school students and is the only published biography of this civil rights lawyer who later argued cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court to dismantle racial segregation in schools. The conversation below, on video and as a transcript, was recorded at the school library in the Samuel W. Tucker Elementary School and is an excerpt of a longer interview. It has been edited for clarity.

How did you come to this line of work? How did you become the school librarian for Samuel W. Tucker Elementary in 2000?

Well, it was a little roundabout. My mother was a teacher, and I think she would have liked me to be a teacher as well. And of course, being a child at the time, I said no way I was going to be doing that. But then I ended up being a public librarian in Arlington County, and that was the beginning of my career. I was there for eight years. And then my husband got a job in Egypt, and that was in 1980. And off we went to Egypt. And there I was fortunate enough to become the elementary librarian at an international school and that, for the next 10 years—that started me on a path of being a school librarian. I was at a middle school and high school in Belgium after we finished almost five years in Egypt.

I realized at that point that I really liked the work of a school librarian more than I liked what public librarians did. I mean, they're both valuable, you know, occupations. But the work is very different. In a school you can follow a student for at least five years in elementary school, five or six years, depending on the configuration of the school. But you have a chance to see them learn and grow and mature [in a way] that you don't have, necessarily, in a public library. So when I came back to the states in 1989, I applied with Alexandria schools and I was hired at Lyles-Crouch [Elementary] School, and then I went to John Adams [Elementary School], and then my husband took a job in Ukraine and I took a two-year leave of absence and was gone for the two years. And then when I was ready to come back, it was 2000. It was just my good fortune that Tucker [Elementary School] was opening. And they hired me as the first librarian here in this space.

What was it like to set up this space? What was the process like for ordering some of the books around you now?

When I was hired in March, I was tasked with ordering the first collection of the books and videos. Somebody else was ordering all the computers and software. I've never had so much money as a librarian to spend in a library, but the shelves were empty. And so when we got here in September, it was bookshelves, and then the boxes of books began to arrive, and we put them on the shelves. But I had with me when I went to Ukraine, the [Virginia K–12] Standards of Learning, you know, on a floppy disk or stiffy disk at that time. You remember that terminology. And I had the Alexandria curriculum, and I used that to find books…that would support the things that teachers were teaching. And then I also emailed all of the new teachers, asking them what books they wanted to find in the collection when they arrived. And that's what I used as my basis for ordering books. Then I kept out some money to fill in the holes and pay for things that we knew we needed that I hadn't gotten earlier. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have this experience of setting up a new library in a new school.

When you were first hired, did you know anything about Samuel Tucker? How did you come to learn about his life and work?

I knew nothing, like most people in Alexandria. And the sit-in was a little-known story. But Cathy David, who was the first principal of the school, made it very clear that all the Tucker students would know who Samuel W. Tucker was and what he did and the significance of the sit-in. And so there was age-appropriate information available to all the teachers, and all the kids were taught what happened in 1939 and why Tucker was such an incredible person.

How did you feel when you first heard the story of the 1939 sit-in?

It resonated with me because the sit-in was a protest against segregation in a public library. And I come from public libraries, and public libraries are supposed to be places where you can educate yourself. And there was a group of Alexandria citizens who were not given the right to do that, were not allowed to do that. And so the fact that the sit-in was in a public library—that really made a difference with me.

When did you decide to write a book? What was that process like for you?

It was a long process of just mulling over what had happened. And I never intended to write a book. And it was shortly before I retired that there was an article in the Washington Post that someone else [S. J. Ackerman] wrote about Tucker, and it gave more about his life. And by then, I mean, one of the things that I loved doing as a school librarian was teaching kids how to do research and how to find answers to their questions. And so I knew the kinds of questions that they asked and some of the things that they couldn't find in regular biographies. And so I continued to...the seed was planted, and it just needed to grow a little bit.

Purple book cover with black-and-white photo of Tucker in a suit and tie

But I kept thinking that somebody needs to write a biography about this remarkable man so that kids have a way of knowing more about him. Because we basically taught them just about the sit-in, but nothing really about the rest of his life. He did incredible things throughout his career as a lawyer to desegregate public schools in Virginia. And that really wasn't a part of the story here, as I remember. But I thought kids need to know that, too. And so, as I lived with this idea for a while, I finally began to think, “well, you know, nobody else is writing this biography. Maybe I should try to do it, because I know what good kids' nonfiction should look like. And I know how to do research. I've been teaching kids how to do research. I should maybe do this myself.” And so, once I retired, I was looking around for something to do, because I like projects. And so I thought, “well, let me try to do it my way, to do it myself.” And now we have the results.

What was the timeline like for researching, writing, and finally publishing?

Well, I say it took me about nine months, during two years, to actually research and write it. And in the beginning—I think I'd retired by then—I wanted more specifically to know what kids wanted to know about Tucker. So I came back to a third grade class and I asked them, and they wanted to know, you know, things that didn't surprise me…they wanted to know things about his family, who his siblings were, what did his parents do? Did he have a dog? You know, that kind of stuff.

But then there was one third grader who asked me—because he remembered, in third grade, he'd learned that Thurgood Marshall was the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court. That was one of the SOLs [Virginia’s K–12 standards] for first grade—and this third grader remembered it and asked me [about Marshall], and I told them that Tucker had argued a case, a school desegregation case, before the Supreme Court. And the student asked me if Thurgood Marshall was on the Supreme Court when Tucker's case was heard. And I'm going, “wow.” I said, “I don't know. I don't know,” because I believe that if you don't know something, you don't make it up and, you know, you're honest with kids. And I said, “but I will find out and I'll put the answer in the book.” And I did. And the answer is in the book because a third grader asked the question. [On page 65 of the book, Silcox writes, “Marshall was one of the justices who decided S. W. Tucker’s case, Green v. New Kent County.”]

There are no questions that are too insignificant. So I started like that. And then I researched a lot. And then I came back to another fourth grade class with things that I'd written just to check out the reading level and to see if they could find answers to the questions in the text that I'd written. I wanted to make sure that I was writing in a way that was easy for kids to understand in upper elementary and middle school. And it turned out that, you know, they were able to do it. So I was confident that I could continue writing in that style.

What is it like to write a book for young students?

Well, one thing I spent a lot of time on, with the advice of some reading specialists at Tucker, actually: I eliminated idioms from my writing, and I realized that I was writing a lot of passive sentences. I needed to change all of those to active sentences; I needed to have short sentences, strong nouns, strong verbs. And we also had a very large English language learner population at Tucker. So I knew I couldn't use words that were beyond the understanding and the experience of the kids in the upper elementary and then in middle school. And then also I knew that the fourth grade studied Virginia history and had a civil rights component, and seventh grade had U.S. history, and there was a civil rights component there. So I was targeting those two grade levels too, and hoping that it could be used in both of those grade levels.

Thinking back to your research, did you hit any roadblocks? Did it sometimes feel impossible?

Well, nothing was impossible, except that I wish that I had started my research earlier, because by the time I started my research, all the people, most of the people who knew Tucker, were no longer living. His sister was alive for the [school’s] dedication in 2000. But I didn't start working on this until 2011. And so there weren't people I could talk to about it. I had to rely on other things. And fortunately, Audrey Davis at the Alexandria Black History Museum had files of materials about Tucker and the sit-in. And it was newspaper clippings. It was personal memorabilia that I believe his wife made copies of and donated. But somebody saw the value of this material and saved it, and they kept it. And then the librarians of the special collections department in the Alexandria public library, again, they had materials that I could use and Alexandria directories that were just invaluable.

There are no questions that are too insignificant.

But the most valuable was from videotaped interviews that were done in 1985 by a University of Virginia professor. And the University of Virginia digitized them, and they're available on the library's website. And just when I needed to use that material, there it was. And I could sit at my computer at home and listen to Tucker...for five and a half hours. And I listened to it over and over again, because I wanted to capture his voice, his way of speaking. He had a very quiet, thoughtful way of speaking, deliberate but very determined. And so I used words that he used. I put some of his words in the book so that it was easier to get a flavor for what he was really like, his personality.

And then his brother Otto and William Evans....The two of them were some of the protesters; they were also interviewed. And so there again, it was just a wealth of information.

But I found all kinds of unexpected things. One of the unexpected paths that I traveled was late in my research process, as I started writing it, and I realized I needed to know more about his mother, who grew up on a farm near Midland, VA, out in Fauquier County. And so I went out to Midland to see what it looked like. And there's a railroad track that goes through the town there. Just a few little houses. And there was a store, and I went into the store, and there was a woman there who was in charge of it, and I told her what I was doing and what I was working on. And she looked at me and she said, "You know, that sounds an awful lot like the story that my friend Sandra always talks about, her relative." Well, it turned out that Sandra, the friend, was one of Tucker's relatives. Her grandmother was Tucker's aunt. And I then had conversations with her. I went back and we talked several times, and she gave me photographs of Aunt Maggie and the house where Tucker stopped when he was arguing school desegregation cases around Virginia in that area. And he would play the piano. And the little kids, including Sandra, would get to play outside longer. And so she loved it when he came to visit. But I wouldn't have had those pictures if I hadn't been tenacious and curious and followed that path.

Is there anything else you might want to mention that helped you along your journey in writing the book?

Another path that I didn't expect: the chapter on his military service was about two paragraphs. It really wasn't a chapter until I followed a lead that someone had given to me, saying that there was a picture of Tucker when he was a lieutenant in the 366th [Infantry] Regiment that was formed at Fort Devens, MA, and there's a museum there. So I called the archivist and said, “I'm looking for this picture and I think it's a little one, but could you help me out?” And she said, “Well, yeah, there is… I've got the yearbook. And it's not a little picture. It's a big picture.” So she sent me the digitized large portrait of Tucker when he was first lieutenant in Massachusetts. And then she said, “Well, you need to also talk to Jim Pratt, because his father was in Tucker's company.” And so I got in touch with Jim Pratt. He found all kinds of morning reports that Tucker had signed when he was the company commander. And then he also got me in touch with Frank Cloud, who's living in California, who is also in the…same company that Tucker [was in] when Tucker was a company commander. And I telephoned him and interviewed him. He was 94 years old at the time, and he told me stories about going swimming one afternoon in the Adriatic Sea when they were stationed in Italy. So my military chapter got to be quite long and very unexpected.

What was the reaction to your book after publication? And how did you promote it?

Well, I did a lot of library conferences and used my connections through the Virginia Library Association and got in touch with librarians from schools around Virginia who invited me to come and do school visits. I did social studies conferences, book clubs. I did a presentation with the Arlington Public Library at the Black History Museum—Arlington or Alexandria public libraries. But I did a lot of promotion myself. And my publisher initially arranged for me to be on TV. I had a couple of TV news shows and [was] on the Kojo Nnamdi Show, and that was really fun.

It’s been almost a decade since the publication of your book. Yet today people are still asking you about it.

Right. Well, I've been really surprised. We moved back to Minnesota two years ago, and I've been very surprised that people outside of this Northern Virginia area have been interested in knowing about the sit-in. People can't believe that it happened so early and they just want to know more about the story. So I've done—since the two years that I've been in Northfield, MN—I've done presentations at the public library, at the senior center, to a homeschool group, and to some church groups, and there's a group of White Northfield residents who are trying to become better advocates for anti-racism. And they're listening and learning and just trying to…make a difference. And they invited me to come and speak. And another thing that happened that I was totally surprised about: even farther afield, I was contacted by a middle school teacher in California whose eighth grade student was doing a project for National History Day and she wanted to do the Alexandria Library sit-in because the theme that year was "Breaking Barriers." And so she called me and interviewed me and she had a copy of the book and she did a wonderful project on it. She went to the state competition, and she was a finalist in the state.

It is now 2023, and questions about the freedom to check out books from the library are coming back into national headlines. Why is it important for today’s students to know about Tucker’s life, work, and legacy?

Well, I believe that American history is made up of the struggles, the achievements, the contributions of everybody who lived on this land. And if we…I mean, it's the good, the uplifting, the bad, the things that we'd rather not remember. I mean, they're uncomfortable and we could pretend that they didn't happen, but they did happen. And as educators, we would be doing a disservice to students if we didn't tell the full story of American history.

I know that we celebrate different groups of Americans at different times during the year, and that's wonderful. But I think we have to be careful not to think that, you know, we've done Black History Month, we've done Hispanic Heritage Month, we're finished with that, we don't need to include them anymore. History is a continuum. And the events that happened earlier build—laid the groundwork for things that have happened since. And if we don't include everybody's story, it's wrong.

What does Samuel Tucker symbolize for today’s students and the broader public?

I think [it’s] the fact that he never gave up. He had this tenacity....Originally, one of the things that he experienced as a child was on his grandfather's farm, and he heard his father and his grandfather talking and he heard his grandfather say, "That's when they Jim Crow’ed us." And he said from then on, he knew that segregation wasn't always there, didn't always exist, and it didn't always have to be. And it was then that he decided that no, something needed to be done about it.

So when he decided to organize the sit-in, he recognized the fact that African Americans in Alexandria could not use the public library. He said, “that's wrong and we must do something about it.” I think it's important for kids to know that nobody's too young or too old to make a difference and to seek to change the condition and the terms of their lives and the lives of people around them that they care about.

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 guernsey@newamerica.org.

Related Topics
Racial Equity PreK–12 Education