Remembering Alexandria’s civil rights leader

Remembering Alexandria’s civil rights leader

By Derrick Perkins (Photo/Derrick Perkins)

More than a decade before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus and a generation before the greatest gains of the civil rights movement, an Alexandria-born lawyer took a stand against discrimination.

Newcomers would be forgiven for picturing a modern West End schoolhouse when they hear the name Samuel W. Tucker, but in 1939, he helped lay the foundation for the civil rights struggle to come. The story of the day that Tucker took on Alexandria’s library system and his lengthy legal career — fighting against segregation and discrimination — were the focus of Monday’s unveiling of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. poster exhibition at City Hall.

“[Tucker] faced discrimination and injustice and didn’t give up,” said author Nancy Noyes Silcox, who penned Tucker’s biography, during her remarks to a packed audience of school children and adults. “Things have changed, but challenges still exist.”

This August will mark the 75-year anniversary for Tucker’s best-remembered act — organizing a sit-in at the Queen Street library. While the anniversary likely will not generate the same attention as last year’s commemoration of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, local officials and community leaders are making sure Tucker isn’t forgotten in Alexandria.

“This is one of our own,” said Leroy Baker, president of the Alexandria Society for the Preservation of Black Heritage, which helps organize the annual poster exhibition. “This is what we are going to be doing from now on: recognizing one of our own.”

The yearlong celebration of the civil rights leader officially got underway Monday. Officials wrapped the tale of his civil disobedience in with the city’s observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“A lot of what started … the civil rights movement happened right here in Alexandria,” said Marc Funn, son of the late educator Carlton Funn, who devoted his life to preserving and teaching black history in the Port City.

As a young lawyer, Tucker was incensed by the differing service that black and white residents received from the city. Tackling the discrepancy headlong, Tucker sent five well-dressed young black men into the Queen Street library — now the Barrett branch — to apply for a card.

As each was refused, they took a book from a nearby shelf and grabbed a seat at different tables. For quietly reading in a public library, the five were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.

Though the incident garnered little media attention locally, the act of civil disobedience spurred city leaders to open a library for black residents — though smaller and with fewer resources than its counterpart for whites. Tucker, ill and unable to participate in the process, was infuriated by the city’s solution.

When invited to apply for a card at the black library, Tucker refused.

“They were leaders in the struggle for civil rights,” said Silcox, placing Tucker and his comrades side-by-side with King. “Those five protestors sat down to stand up against injustice.”