Watson Reading Room

Located next door to the Alexandria Black History Museum, the Watson Reading Room is a non-circulating research repository focusing on issues of African-American history and culture.

Page updated on Jun 21, 2021 at 4:01 PM

Watson Reading Room image

Interior, Watson Reading Room

Visiting the Reading Room

The Watson Reading Room currently has over 3,000 holdings documenting the history of African Americans. Books, periodicals, dissertations, theses, video and audio tapes are accessible by patrons. This library is a non-circulating facility, but offers a 48-hour reserve shelf for patrons.

Black History Museum staff and volunteers will be available (by appointment) to work with visitors of all ages who are researching African-American history. Call 703.746.4356 for an appointment.

People wanting to donate books to the Watson Reading Room must contact the Director prior to bringing them to the museum.

The Reading Room may be rented for meetings and small lectures.

History of the Reading Room

The Watson Reading Room is named in honor of Charles and Laura Watson, early African-American landowners in Alexandria. In 1874, Laura Watson and her sons established the Sunnyside community on land bequeathed to her by her husband. Sunnyside, located in the area of West Glebe Road and Mount Vernon Avenue, flourished as an African-American housing development.

In 1992, following the wishes of Sunnyside residents, funds from the Development’s Ownership Assistance Program were used to pay for construction of the Watson Reading Room. The site selected for the reading room, next to the Alexandria Black History Museum, was rich in history for Alexandria’s African-American citizens. Buildings that formerly stood on the 906 Wythe Street address had been a church, school, and a store during segregation.

Officially opened in October of 1995, the Watson Reading Room permits visitors to use a growing collection of books, periodicals, and videos on African-American history, thus fulfilling the wishes of Sunnyside residents for a facility that would educate all Alexandrians about the contributions of African Americans.

Oral Traditions

Office of Historic Alexandria staff and volunteers are in the process of collecting oral histories from local Alexandrians. Transcripts of some of these tapes are available online for use by the public, and provide insight into the life of Alexandria's African-American community.

The oral history tradition played an important role in the African-American community. Oral history was used to document family ties and spread news for enslaved families. To help children understand the value of oral traditions, professional storytellers often visit the Watson Reading Room. The storytellers depict characters from African American history such as Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass. They act out actual ex-slave narratives from recordings done in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Through their performances the storytellers educate children and adults about the importance of oral history, fables and proverbs in African-American heritage.