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Brenda Mitchell-Powell’s book Public in Name Only explores the history of racial segregation in Virginia public libraries through the example of the Alexandria library system and the outcomes of a 1939 desegregation sit-in led by Samuel Tucker. Although the participants were aiming for integration of the main branch, an unintended consequence of the sit-in was the hasty construction of a segregated “colored branch,” a separate but not equal library for Black Alexandrians. Mitchell-Powell notes that the Black librarians at the Robert H. Robinson Library sometimes filled in for the white staff at the main branch but never vice-versa.1

Join the Library of Virginia’s Common Ground Virginia History Book Group virtually at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, February 21, 2023, to discuss Public in Name Only: The 1939 Alexandria Library Sit-In Demonstration with author Brenda Mitchell-Powell.

This event is free but registration is required.

According to James E. Hooper, “too few white librarians would serve in low-paying black colleges” and so somewhat ironically, the South’s commitment to Jim Crow segregation created a need for Black librarians.2 The professionalization of librarianship in the United States was still relatively new, and professional educational programs for librarians, regardless of race, were few and far between. Rev. Thomas Fountain Blue, a Virginia native, entered his librarianship career without prior specialized education himself and saw the need for a training course.

Rev. Blue was born in 1866 in Farmville, Virginia, and attended Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) and Richmond Theological Seminary (now Virginia Union University). Like so many other Black Virginians of the era, he moved out of state for better economic opportunities. In 1899, he took a job in Lexington, Kentucky, as a secretary for the YMCA.3 Blue quickly became involved in the creation of a “colored branch department” for the Lexington public library system. In 1905, he was appointed the first “secretary,” or director, of two branches that were “educational and social centers” for the community.4 As the first Black librarian to oversee a branch, he saw an opportunity to train others to do the same. The Lexington Public Library Colored Department apprenticeship program trained many librarians who went to serve elsewhere. In 1927, Blue helped organize a conference for Black librarians in his home state of Virginia at his alma mater, Hampton Institute. The number of participants was small, in part because there were so few career librarians to attend.

It is possible the powers that be would not have considered assisting with educational opportunities for Black librarians if the circumstances of segregation had not forced their hand. For many white professionals, the only reason for Black individuals to become librarians was that someone needed to serve Black patrons. Major funders of literacy and educational projects, such as the Carnegie Corporation and the Julius Rosenwald Fund, saw their philanthropic activities hindered by the lack of Black professional librarians available to run the segregated libraries in schools and communities they helped found. Around 1925, members of the General Education Board and the American Library Association convened to devise a plan to fund a library school program specifically for Black students.5 Before reaching out to any potential schools, they decided that the school should be located in the South so as to be accessible to students they believed would probably be employed in the South. They also reasoned that learning in the South (regardless of the student’s home location) would prepare them to work in a segregated Southern environment.

Narrowing the options down to Hampton Institute in Virginia and Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, they decided to approach Hampton because of its good financial state, its large library, and in large part because “…the principal and heads of various schools were white, [and it] has had at all times the advantage of white managerial intelligence.”6 Both Hampton and Tuskegee were founded on an industrial and technical school model. Tuskegee’s most famous director, Booker T. Washington, was a Hampton graduate and mentee of Hampton’s founder, Samuel C. Armstrong. While Hampton was still largely administered by white northerners, however, Tuskegee focused on employing Black professors and administrators. Part of the decision was practical – there were not many Black professional librarians to draw from – but part of the decision was also probably driven, perhaps even unconsciously, by the inquiring committee members comfort level in working with other white men. Hampton Institute agreed to house the program and hired Florence Rising Curtis, previously the assistant director of Drexel Library School, to head the new program.

The main room at the Hampton Institute Library School.

THE SOUTHERN WORKMAN 56, no. 6 (June 1, 1927), p. 273.

The announcement of the new program at Hampton Institute was met with both approval and criticism. The criticism followed closely along the lines of W. E. B. Du Bois’ opposition to Hampton and to the industrial school method favored by Armstrong and Washington, despite the fact that Hampton was slowly moving away from this model at the time. Du Bois and others felt that the industrial model of schooling prepared Black students only for jobs that valued their physical strength and not their intellect. While not opposed to such professions, Du Bois felt that the industrial school movement pushed such professions as the most appropriate ones for Black students. Walter F. White, Assistant Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), applied Du Bois’ previous criticism of Hampton to the library school specifically:

“On the ground of the scholastic standing of Hampton Institute…Hampton Institute is an industrial and high school…[and] We, therefore, do not feel that the best interests of the colored librarians would be served through the connection of such a school with an institution which is not of college or university rank.” 7

Although the bachelor’s in library science that Hampton eventually offered was common for the time, some graduates did have to pursue higher degrees later from other, predominantly white institutions.

White also voiced apprehension that placing a library school in a Southern segregated school would simply further the acceptance of segregation, and that any graduate of the program would be seen as only suitable to work in a segregated environment. How were white librarians supposed to acknowledge that Black librarians were their equals if they never interacted? Would the mere existence of a program geared specifically for Black students give Northern library schools, which at this point were at least nominally integrated, an excuse to steer Black applicants away from their own school and towards the program at Hampton?8 This last issue in particular does seem to have occurred. When asked in 1925 about the policy on “colored” students, Drexel University responded that although they accepted Black applicants into their evening classes, “[a]pplications [by Black students] to the library school have in all cases been referred to Hampton Institute.”9

Despite his criticism of the school as a whole, Du Bois recognized “the fine spirit of many of her teachers, past and present, and the splendid character of her graduates.”10 In the fourteen years (1925-1939) that the Hampton Institute library program was in existence, 183 librarians graduated before the funders withdrew financial support in favor of establishing a program at Atlanta University in 1941.11 When this occurred, many of the professors in the new program were alumni of the Hampton program. Director Curtis was a qualified and well-meaning instructor who prepared her students as best she could for their chosen career, which often included a visit to what was then known as the Virginia State Library.12

The Hampton program focused heavily on children’s literature. When the Hampton Institute closed in 1939 most of its graduates “were employed by [Black] colleges, usually as the only trained librarian in the institution” as well as in Black high schools in the South and segregated public library branches13.

Virginia Young Lee is a good example. Born in Roanoke, Lee graduated from Hampton Institute. After a short stint in Memphis, Tennessee, she returned to Roanoke and the Gainesboro Public Library where she was a librarian for over forty years. Lee created numerous programs and was dedicated to creating a collection that reflected the needs and wants of her patrons. In the 1940s, when the white citizens of Roanoke expressed displeasure with some of the book selections available in the Gainesboro Branch, particularly those having to do with the civil rights movement, Lee took them off the main shelves and hid them in the basement, where they continued to be accessible on an unofficial basis.14

Alice Atwater Jackson worked as a librarian at Virginia State College (now University) as well as several other educational institutions.15 She became an assistant to Arthur Schomburg and helped facilitate the creation of his famous research library in New York.16 Even in retirement, she continued to volunteer in the Virginia State University archives.17 Harriet D. Miles Hill was librarian at Hampton’s Phenix Senior High School as well as at Roanoke City Public Library. She was also chairman of the Librarian’s Division of the Virginia State Teachers Association.18

Not all Virginians who attended Hampton stayed in the Commonwealth. Constance Hill Marteena, a Richmond native, attended Hartshorn Memorial College and Hampton Institute, and eventually moved to North Carolina after obtaining a Master’s in Library Science from the University of Chicago. She specialized in researching the lives of African-American women, creating bibliographic resources and writing a biography of Charlotte Hawkins Brown.19 She also headed up the North Carolina Negro Library Association and was director during its 1954 merger and integration with the North Carolina Library Association.20

Wallace Van Jackson, born in Richmond in 1900, graduated from Hampton in 1934 while working as the librarian at Virginia Union University. Van Jackson continued his education by receiving an A.M.L.S. in Library Science from the University of Michigan and pursued a doctorate from the University of Chicago, though he did not graduate.21 Later in his career, he returned to Virginia as university librarian for Virginia State University, which created its own library science program. Throughout his career, he traveled to help smaller libraries organize their collections both in the United States and abroad. In 1939, the Mathews Gazette-Journal informed readers he would be arriving to help catalog books at the Thomas Hunter High School Library.22 He also served as an early historian of Black librarianship writing numerous articles such as “Some Pioneer Negro Library Workers” for Library Journal.23

In 1936, while Van Jackson was still a librarian at Virginia Union, the American Library Association (ALA) held its annual convention in Richmond. As a native Richmonder and a member of the Black Caucus, Van Jackson’s name appeared on a “semi-official” letter sent to all Black attendees detailing the restrictions placed on their participation because of Virginia’s Jim Crow laws. Attendees were assured they could enter the hotels that were hosting sessions by the front doors but they could not legally stay in the hotel rooms. They could not attend any sessions that provided food, due to Virginia’s laws against integrated public dining.24 Van Jackson and others protested such treatment. Although ALA was integrated at the national level, the ALA Committee on Racial Discrimination stated that:

“In all rooms and halls assigned to the American Library Association hereafter for use in connection with its conference or otherwise under its control, all members shall be admitted upon terms of full equality.”25

This of course did not mean that ALA always succeeded in listening to the concerns of their members. Forty years later, another Virginia native, Dr. E. J. Josey, founded the ALA Black Caucus in part because “ALA was not serving the needs of Black Library professionals.”26

Van Jackson continued to fight for his rights both as a Black librarian and a Black man in the Southern United States. When he was denied the right to vote in a ‘whites only’ democratic primary in Atlanta in 1945, the NAACP filed a lawsuit on his behalf.27 It took until 1972 for the Virginia Library Association to admit its first Black members, of which Van Jackson was one (the other being Alpha S. Rodgers, who organized the Librarian’s Division of the Virginia State Teachers Association). In 1976, the American Library Association awarded Van Jackson a Centennial Citation for service on numerous committees, for “leadership in the development of black academic libraries in the United States, in library education,” and for being a strong “spokesman for black librarians.”28

Special Centennial ALA Citation recipients, including Van Jackson (seated second from left).

“ALA Recognizes Past - through People Who Made It Happen,” THE CONFERENCE PLAINDEALER, September 1976, p. 500.

In 1944, Van Jackson wrote in the Journal of Negro Education,

“We know that books furnish inspiration to anyone who is depressed. We know that books can help the enquiring mind to find its way. It is the duty, and should be the pleasure, of those of us who appreciate books to see to it that those who need them get the books which will benefit them…The teachers, librarians and all who would live in a better world must help America acquire reading skills and abilities of interpretation…Build the future with books!”29

The librarians who graduated from Hampton Institute worked towards this goal both through their professional duties as librarians and by changing the profession itself, forcing it to revaluate its professional standards. They were pioneers not simply because they were the first degreed Black librarians, they were pioneers as some of the first librarians in a newly professionalized occupation. As the 1977 Handbook of Black Librarianship noted, since Hampton Institute educated the majority of Black American librarians from 1925 to 1939, “from the ranks of Hampton graduates, then, have come most of the pioneers in American librarianship who happened to be black.”30



Battles, David M. The History of Public Library Access for African Americans in the South, or, Leaving Behind the Plow. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2009. Print.

Burns-Simpson, Shauntee et al. The Black Librarian in America : Reflections, Resistance, and Reawakening. Ed. Shauntee Burns-Simpson et al. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2022.

Campbell, Lucy B. Black Librarians in Virginia. Hampton, VA: Campbell, 1976. Print.

Knott, Cheryl. Not Free, Not for All : Public Libraries in the Age of Jim Crow. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015.

Robbins, Louise S. The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown : Civil Rights, Censorship, and the American Library. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.

Silcox, Nancy Noyes. Samuel Wilbert Tucker : the Story of a Civil Rights Trailblazer and the 1939 Alexandria Library Sit-In. First edition. Fairfax, Virginia: History4All, Inc., 2014. Print.


1939 Alexandria Sit-In (Alexandria Library)

75 Years After the Alexandria Library Sit-In (Kojo Nnamdi Show)

Alexandria Circuit Court Dismisses Charges Against Civil Rights Advocates at 1939 (City of Alexandria)

“Any Ideas?”: The American Library Association and the Desegregation of Public Libraries in the American South (Libraries: Culture, History, Society)

Aug. 21, 1939: Five Black Men Arrested for Going to Publicly Funded Library (Zinn Education Project)

Black Caucus American Library Association

Circuit Court Dismissal Order, 2019 (City of Alexandria)

Danville Civil Rights Demonstrations of 1963 (Encyclopedia Virginia)

Desegregating Public Libraries (American Libraries)

Giving Thanks for the Activists Who Integrated Public Libraries (Public Libraries Online)

History of the Alexandria Black History Museum (City of Alexandria)

Protests in Danville, Virginia (Digital SNCC Gateway)


  1. Brenda Mitchell-Powell, Public in Name Only: The 1939 Alexandria Library Sit-in Demonstration (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2022), 145.
  2. John Mark Tucker and James E. Hooper, “Private Dominance in Black Academic Libraries. 1916-1938.,” in Untold Stories: Civil Rights, Libraries, and Black Librarianship (Champaign, Ill: Publications Office, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, 1998), pp. 48-61.
  3. “Free Libraries in Louisville,” The Twin City Star, July 24, 1914, p. 2.
  4. Ibid.
  5. “Library School,” The Southern Workman 56, no. 6 (June 1, 1927): pp. 272-274,——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——–
    Gunn, Arthur Clinton. “Early Training for Black Librarians in the U.S.: A History of the Hampton Institute Library School and the Establishment of the Atlanta University School of Library Science (Virginia, Georgia, United States).” Order No. 8702067. University of Pittsburgh, 1986.
  6. Gunn, Arthur Clinton. “Early Training for Black Librarians in the U.S.: A History of the Hampton Institute Library School and the Establishment of the Atlanta University School of Library Science (Virginia, Georgia, United States).” Order No. 8702067. University of Pittsburgh, 1986.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. “Library School,” The Southern Workman 56, no. 6 (June 1, 1927): pp. 272-274,——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——–.
  13. John Mark Tucker and James E. Hooper, “Private Dominance in Black Academic Libraries. 1916-1938.,” in Untold Stories: Civil Rights, Libraries, and Black Librarianship (Champaign, Ill: Publications Office, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, 1998), pp. 48-61.
  14. Nelson Harris, “Roanoke’s Secret Library,” The Roanoker (LeisureMedia360, February 28, 2022),
  15. E. J. Josey and Anne Allen Shockley, Handbook of Black Librarianship (Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited Inc., 1977), 40.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid, 41.
  19. Ibid, 43.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. “Among the Colored,” Gloucester Mathews Gazette-Journal, February 9, 1939, p. 7,——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——–
  23. Wallace Van Jackson, “Some Pioneer Negro Library Workers,” Library Journal 64 (March 15, 1939): pp. 215-217.
  24. “Comments Wanted,” Library Journal 61 (May 15, 1936): p. 387 /
    Van Jackson, Wallace. “Readers’ Open Forum: Negro Segregation,” Library Journal 61 (June 15, 1936): p. 467-8.
  25. J. Josey and Anne Allen Shockley, Handbook of Black Librarianship (Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited Inc., 1977), 44.
  26. “About BCALA,” Black Caucus American Library Association, April 20, 2021,
  27. “Georgia Negro Democrats Attempt to Kill White Primary Law by Filing Court Case”, The Black Dispatch, June 23, 1945, p.1-2.
  28. E. J. Josey and Anne Allen Shockley, Handbook of Black Librarianship (Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited Inc., 1977), 45.
  29. Van Jackson, Wallace. “Building Our Future with Books”, The Journal of Negro Education 13 (April 1944): p.174-9.
  30. E. J. Josey and Anne Allen Shockley, Handbook of Black Librarianship (Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited Inc., 1977), 24.

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