History of the Alexandria Black History Museum

From the establishment of Alexandria in 1749 to the present, African Americans have been a vibrant part of the City’s history. The City of Alexandria would not exist in its present form were it not for the economic, social, and cultural contributions of African Americans both enslaved and free.

Page updated on Apr 9, 2021 at 12:32 PM

History of the Alexandria Black History Museum

The Robinson Library Story time at the Robinson Library Robinson Library interior

The Sit-Down Strike and the Robinson Library

An important event in 20th-century Alexandria’s African-American history occurred in 1939. This event raised the consciousness of the minority community and became one of the watershed moments in Alexandria’s civil rights history.

In 1939, a "sit-down strike" was staged by five young African-American men in the city’s segregated Queen Street Library. The young men were arrested for their act of civil disobedience but the City responded to the African-American citizens demands for more access to educational opportunities. As a result, the City built the Robert Robinson Library in 1940. This segregated library for African-Americans was used until desegregation in the early 1960s. After desegregation, the building was used for various community service programs. Today, the Robert Robinson Library forms an integral part of the Alexandria Black History Museum.

On October 18, 2019,  the Alexandria Circuit Court dismissed all charges against the sit-in participants. After recent research by Alexandria Library staff determined that the original judge in the case never issued a ruling and the charges were technically still outstanding, Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter asked the Court to dismiss the charges. Although the five African American residents were charged with disorderly conduct, the Court has now found that they were “lawfully exercising their constitutional rights to free assembly, speech and to petition the government to alter the established policy of sanctioned segregation at the time of their arrest,” and that “sitting peacefully in a library reading books … was not in any fashion disorderly or likely to cause acts of violence.” The Court determined that no laws had been broken and no criminal charges should have been filed.

Learn more about  Samuel Wilbert Tucker, Unsung Hero of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Robert H. Robinson Library

Dr. Brenda Mitchell-Powell, for the Alexandria Black History Museum

Robert H. Robinson Library opened less than a year after the August 21, 1939, Alexandria Library sit-in and less than four months from Judge William Pape Woolls’ ruling on the writ of mandamus filed by Samuel Wilbert Tucker on behalf of Sergeant George Wilson. Acting as Sergeant Wilson’s attorney, Tucker had completed Sergeant Wilson’s application for library privileges at the Alexandria Library. Judge Woolls ruled that if Sergeant Wilson had completed the library application himself and provided proof of his residence in Alexandria, Katharine Scoggins, the Alexandria Library Librarian, would have been obliged to grant his request for a library card. This ruling shocked the Alexandria Library Board of Directors and the City Council members. They realized the decision would open the doors of the library to African American Alexandrians. In fact, within two days of the court ruling, two African Americans applied for library cards. Dorothy Pierce was the first applicant. 

The Alexandria Library Board of Directors and the City Council rushed to construct a separate and unequal branch library for the city’s African American citizens to circumvent integration of the whites-only Alexandria Library. City Council named the library in honor of Robert H. Robinson, a Methodist minister and formerly enslaved man. He was also the grandson of Caroline Branham, Martha Washington’s personal maid. Ward Brown, the architect for the structure, designed a one-room Colonial-style brick building on the corner of Wythe and North Alfred streets in Old Town Alexandria. The total costs for the new branch included $2,500 for construction expenses, $750 for the purchase of the site, $1,941.50 for books and equipment, and $1,750 for annual operating costs — considerably less than the cost to build, stock, and maintain the city’s white library.

The Robert H. Robinson Library opened for patron inspection on April 23, 1940. The next day the library was open for patrons to register for library cards. The first full-time Librarian was Evelyn Roper Beam, a highly qualified African American woman with superb credentials. Nevertheless, she was paid only $720.00 per year. By contrast, Ellen Coolidge Burke, the white, part-time Alexandria Library Assistant Librarian and Cataloger was paid $1,940.00 per year. 

The first collection of books at the Robinson Library totaled approximately 1,500 volumes. Most were castoffs from the Alexandria Library or donated used books. Only a few new books were purchased for the library. Robinson Library patrons also had borrowing privileges from the Alexandria Library, but they were not allowed into the whites-only library to acquire books themselves. Instead, their selections had to be retrieved for them and returned to the main library by Miss Beam. To serve their research needs, they could borrow reference books overnight, but these, too, had to be retrieved and returned by Miss Beam.

Most of Robinson Library patrons were elementary school and high school students who used the library’s resources to compete their schoolwork. In addition to providing assistance with class assignments, the Robinson Library offered story hours and activities for children. Adults were also library card holders, participated in a reading club and using the space for community meetings and social events.

The Robinson Library continued to serve the needs of African American Alexandrians, despite acknowledged, overcrowded conditions, until February 1959. That winter the Alexandria Library quietly integrated for African American adults and high school students. Children continued to be served by the Robinson Library until July 1962 when the Alexandria Library was fully integrated. From 1962 until 1969, the Robinson Library served as the city’s Bookmobile Station. In 1983, the building was repurposed as the Alexandria Black History Resource Center. It underwent a complete renovation from 1988 to 1989. In 2004, the Black History Resource Center was renamed the Alexandria Black History Museum.

    Parker-Gray High School and the Alexandria Black History Research Center

    The Museum is located in the Parker-Gray Historic District of the City. This district is named in honor of the Parker-Gray High School, the only high school African Americans could attend in Alexandria until 1965.

    In 1983, through the advocacy of the Parker-Gray Alumni and the Alexandria Society for the Preservation of Black Heritage, the Robert Robinson Library re-opened as the Alexandria Black History Research Center. At first, staffing was provided on a volunteer basis by the members of these organizations. In 1987, the Alexandria City Council placed the operation of the Museum under the Office of Historic Alexandria and provided funding for an addition to the building that was completed in 1989.

    Learn more about black education and the Parker-Gray High School.

    The Alexandria Black History Museum

    The museum has grown dramatically since 1989. In 1995, two additional sites were added to the Museum. The Alexandria African American Heritage Park, a nine-acre park that preserves the site of a 19th-century African-American cemetery, opened in June 1995. The Park is located several blocks away from the Museum. In October of 1995, the Watson Reading Room opened next door to the Museum. This non-circulating reading room houses the museum’s collection of books, videos, documents, and periodicals on African-American life and culture.

    The museum follows its mission of preserving the history of Alexandria’s African-American citizens, as well as providing a forum for issues of concern to all African Americans. The Museum has become a source of pride to Alexandria’s African-American citizens. With two exhibition galleries on the first floor of the museum, and artifact storage and offices below, the Alexandria Black History Museum continues to expand educational opportunities for residents, scholars and tourists.

    The Robinson Library Library Card from the Robinson Library, 1950