The 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 Oct 22, 2019 at 12:49 PM
The Robinson Library Story time at the Robinson Library Robinson Library interior Library Card from the Robinson Library, 1950

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.

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.

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