Story of 1939 VA Library Sit-in Reinforces Today’s Fight for Access to Books

In The News Piece in The74Million
March 20, 2023

Lisa Guernsey and Jazmyne Owens wrote an article for The74Million about Brenda Mitchell-Powell’s book, Public in Name Only.

In the summer of 1939, an event unfolded in Alexandria, Virginia, that represents a fight for educational access and freedom that continues to this day.

On the morning of Aug. 21, 1939, five young Black men entered Alexandria’s only public library and sat down at tables to read books they had selected from the shelves. The head librarian, following the library’s “whites only” policy, called the city manager. He had the five men arrested. They were charged with disorderly conduct, even though they did nothing other than read quietly. The charges were not dismissed until 2019, long after the men had passed away.

The event was, in fact, an organized sit-in, the first of its kind in a public library. It is now the subject of a new book, Public in Name Only, written by former librarian Brenda Mitchell-Powell and published last fall by the University of Massachusetts Press. For decades, the story of these five men — one as young as 18 — was barely known. Most residents of Virginia, let alone the United States, have never heard of it. Today — as educational spaces like libraries are under attack, and as questions about race and education access become central to the debate over what kind of country the United States should be — the story of the Alexandria library sit-in needs to be heard.

Read the full article here.