Patrons of Northern Virginia’s libraries take access to them for granted, but many of the facilities were for whites only until the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Chris Barbuschak and Suzanne LaPierre, librarians in the Virginia Room at the City of Fairfax Regional Library, recently delved into that history and chronicled the struggle in a new book, “Desegregation in Northern Virginia Libraries.”
“There’s a whole story here that hasn’t been told,” LaPierre said. “This is a piece of history that needs to be put together and put out [in public]. It’s a time in history that nobody’s proud of.”
The project began in April 2021 when the Fairfax County Public Library (FCPL) board of trustees member Sujatha Hampton inquired whether the library system ever had been segregated.
Library officials tasked LaPierre and Barbuschak with investigating the matter, and they came back to the board that September with a 100-plus-page report. Impressed board members urged them to turn it into a book.
When doing the initial report, Barbuschak focused his research on Fairfax County’s libraries, and LaPierre concentrated on those of surrounding jurisdictions. While writing the book, Barbuschak also looked into the history of libraries in the city of Falls Church and Prince William County.
The authors conducted their research and writing outside their work hours for the library system. While their findings concerned the black community and did not delve into discrimination against other races, “many of the library charters referred to ‘white-only’ access which could be used to exclude anyone of color,” LaPierre said.
The earliest case of area residents fighting against library segregation occurred in 1939, when Howard University graduate and lawyer Samuel Tucker used legal maneuvers and well-publicized public protests to try to desegregate Alexandria Public Library.
Tucker was unable to persuade city officials to do so, but they soon afterward ordered construction of the smaller Robert H. Robinson Library, which exclusively was for patrons of color.
Some other area jurisdictions also used this separate-but-equal tactic until the U.S. Supreme Court forbade it with the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. Even after that, however, some black residents still did not feel welcome in or comfortable about using libraries that previously had been denied them, the authors wrote.
After the Danville library integrated, for example, officials removed all the facility’s tables and chairs and implemented an arduous library-card application form to discourage some users, according to the book.
Northern Virginia occupied a unique position then between the segregated Deep South and more liberal Washington, D.C.
In Arlington, black residents in 1940 created the Henry Louis Holmes Library Association, which opened a branch in Mount Olive Baptist Church.
Arlington in 1950 became Virginia’s first county to desegregate its library system. Neighboring Alexandria, however, was last in the pack, with the city’s libraries becoming open to non-whites in stages in 1959 and 1962.
Fairfax County’s library system nominally was open to all races from its founding in 1939, but the authors found evidence this was not the case.
“In Fairfax County, they agreed to serve black residents, but opened up only [bookmobile] stations in Falls Church and Fairfax,” Barbuschak said.
“If you were white, could get books through schools, bookmobiles and town libraries. If you were black, you had to wait for the bookmobile to deposit books – and they only did that for a couple of years.”
Vienna Town Library, an 1897 white-clapboard building that since has been moved to the grounds of the Freeman Store & Museum, was for whites only at the Vienna Library Association’s founding in 1913.
The association’s resistance to integration led in 1958 to the formation of Friends of the Library Vienna, Va. The group pressed for creation of an integrated facility, Patrick Henry Library, which opened in 1962.
Area libraries often integrated before their jurisdictions’ school systems, which were subject to Virginia’s “Massive Resistance” movement in the 1950s.
Both authors were impressed by the example of Jennie Dean, who in 1893 founded the Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth, at the time the only high school for black children in Northern Virginia. The school later was housed in a building with a library, which was funded in part by the Carnegie Corp. of New York.
In addition to telling about local desegregation efforts, the book brims with black-and-white photos from those decades. Each chapter also lists existing sites and landmarks, complete with addresses, which readers may visit if they wish to learn more.
The authors did much of their research in libraries, but also enjoyed visiting historical sites in person and interviewing people who witnessed or took part in the events covered.
The writers are considering doing a children’s book on civil-rights activists. Barbuschak, a connoisseur of diners, also may write a book about the history of those eateries in Fairfax County, while LaPierre may write more about Jennie Dean or perhaps black librarians during segregation.
FCPL Director Jessica Hudson said officials have been “thrilled” with the public’s reception to the authors’ book.
“FCPL continues to highlight the need for access to information all levels, so documenting our Northern Virginia history about library desegregation into one well-written and easy-to-read book made enormous sense,” she said.
Hampton wrote the book’s foreword and called its narrative “every bit as impactful as the story of school segregation and the slow crawl to integration – and it is a successful story.”