Byline: Alexandra Rockey Fleming, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
In 1939, 13 Southern states were hosts to 764 public libraries. Just 99 admitted black Americans. In the spring of that year, five young black men were arrested in the Alexandria Free Library on charges of disorderly conduct. Their crime: They had attempted to exercise library privileges at a whites-only facility.
"Many people probably don't even have an idea about the '39 sit-in," says Audrey Davis, curator and assistant director of the Alexandria Black History Resource Center. That event - one of the first actions of civil disobedience - led to the 1940 creation of the Robert H. Robinson Library, the first public library for Alexandria's black community.
Today, that building stands as the cornerstone of the Alexandria Black History Resource Center, which opened in 1983 and is now under the direction of the Office of Historic Alexandria. In the Parker-Gray district of Old Town just a few blocks off Washington Street, the center promotes Alexandria's black history and builds on the knowledge of black contributions to society through lectures, videos, tours of the center and related artifacts.
Attractions and resources include an ever-expanding permanent collection, gallery space for rotating exhibits and the adjacent Watson Reading Room, which is a noncirculating research repository. The Alexandria African American Heritage Park, an 8-acre memorial space about a dozen blocks away from the center on Duke Street, completes the center's offerings.
Some of the center's materials showcase Alexandria's early history; many reflect years of struggle by the city's black residents.
"When you come to this country, by the great writings of our forefathers, you assume that you have certain rights as an American citizen," Ms. Davis says. "But with our exhibits, we want to ask, 'Is that really the case?' Do new immigrants think they'll be able to achieve everything that white Americans have achieved? We want to pose these questions."
The center inspires such questions via "Securing the Blessings of Liberty," a permanent exhibit under development that was created "to take people back to Africa and up to the present, showing you family history and education," Ms. Davis says. "'Securing the Blessings' will have the viewers work with the curators as we discover more history about Alexandria. The final product will be unveiled in February 2004."
Among the artifacts in the Robert H. Robinson Library are photographs of people "who may not have been the most famous but who made a difference," Ms. Davis says. They include William Thomas, the first black Alexandrian casualty of World War I, and Cpl. Wayne L. Jordan, a native Alexandrian killed in Vietnam in 1967. Also included are copies of letters and photographs of the old slave pen on Duke Street. A regal mahogany organ, constructed in 1891 in Vermont, sits on loan from Alexandria's Shiloh Baptist Church.
Across the lobby, the Parker-Gray Gallery (named for the principals of two of Alexandria's early schools for black children after the Civil War) houses the center's rotating exhibits, which change every few months. "Reading the Word: The Church and African American Education," opening this month, explores the role of the church in …