Black History

Alexandria Dismisses Charges Against Black Men in 1939 Sit-In Case

A circuit court in Alexandria, Va., has dismissed all charges against five African American men accused of disorderly conduct at a 1939 sit-in to protest the city’s whites-only public library.

Attorney Bryan Porter asked the court to dismiss the charges after recent research by Alexandria Library staff determined that the original judge in the case never issued a ruling.

The court found that the men were “lawfully exercising their constitutional rights to free assembly, speech, and to petition the government.” The court also determined that no laws had been broken and no criminal charges should have been filed.

On Aug. 21, 1939, William Evans, Edward Gaddis, Morris Murray, Clarence Strange and Otto Tucker each asked to register for a library card. After being turned down, each sat silently at a different table and began to read a library book.

Police officers arrested the group and charged them with disorderly conduct. The charges were never prosecuted and the city quickly established a separate library for African Americans instead.

“I applaud the recent action by the commonwealth’s attorney and the Circuit Court to right an important part of the wrong that occurred 80 years ago,” Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson said in a statement. “While the arc of the moral universe has just bent a little closer to justice, we know there remains much to be done to improve equality for all residents of Alexandria and our nation. I commend Library staff for commemorating our difficult history while working to create a bright future for all.”

Wilson presented the court’s order to descendants of the sit-in participants at a panel discussion Monday at the Charles E. Beatley Jr. Central Library in Alexandria.

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