According to the curator of a new exhibit about the civil rights movement in Virginia, the challenge to racial segregation in the Old Dominion was less explosive than other parts of the South. With a few notable exceptions — an 1839 slave revolt in Southampton County and 1963 clashes in Danville — Virginia fought the battles of the movement in the courts rather than the streets.
“When people think about the civil rights movement, images are often brought to mind of water hoses, vicious dogs and deadly explosions,” said Lauranett Lee, curator of African-American history for the Virginia Historical Society. “Virginia was different. We fought through the courts.”
Lee’s exhibit, “The Civil Rights Movement in Virginia,” was originally created in Richmond to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision. Since 2004, it has traveled to Roanoke, Lynchburg, Portsmouth and now Alexandria. In that time, Lee says that she has been surprised by some of the reaction to the exhibit — especially from the response of younger viewers who have not taken the time to think about the harsh realities of segregation.
“Younger people have never experienced anything like this,” Lee said. “When many of them see the ‘colored only’ signs on the water fountains, they think that colored water comes out of it.”
TO GIVE VISITORS a sense of living in a strictly segregated society, cultural artifacts, archival footage and vintage photographs are used to recreate the past. The narrative begins with the philosophical debate between W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington about the proper way for blacks to achieve freedom. It then moves chronologically from legal challenges to inadequate accommodations toward the desegregation of the schools and, ultimately, the struggle to establish voting rights.
Installations in the Alexandria version of the traveling exhibit include part of a lunch counter and a water fountain — vestiges of a time that will seem distant to many of the museum visitors who experience Lee’s exhibit.
“It’s difficult to imagine the disparity that existed in the past,” Lee said. “We’re hoping that people will get a sense of what the Jim Crow era was like.”
For Audrey Davis, assistant director of the Alexandria museum, one of the most striking features of the exhibit is the 1960 photograph of Ruth Tinsley being arrested for trying to shop at a whites-only department store in Richmond. Davis said that looking at the photograph can give people a sense of the kind of tactics that were used to maintain the segregated system that pervaded Virginia society since the rise of Jim Crow laws in the late 19th century.
“I think that photo is indicative of what was going on at the time,” Davis said. “They were considered second-class citizens.”
ALEXANDRIA FEATURES prominently in the exhibit, which includes a mention of the 1939 sit-in organized by Alexandria native Samuel Tucker — an NAACP lawyer who wanted to bring legal challenges to segregation in Virginia. He represented several black clients who wanted access to Alexandria’s library on Queen Street. The Alexandria Gazette, which was then an afternoon daily newspaper, reported the historic event in its Aug. 21, 1939 issue.
“Five colored youths were arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct today on the complaint of Policeman John F. Kelley after they entered the Alexandria Library, withdrew books from the shelves and sat down at a table to read, despite the fact that they were asked to leave by Librarian Miss Catherine Scoggin,” the Gazette reported.
Because the city had no separate but equal facility for blacks, many whites in Alexandria feared that the library might become a segregated institution. So the City Council appropriated $4,500 to build a separate library facility for blacks in the 900 block of Wythe Street — a building that is now the home of the Alexandria Black History Museum, where the exhibit will be housed for the next several months.
“The library was built as a result of the sit in,” said Louis Hicks, director of the museum. “Since our story ties into the national story, it brings the message home.”
The free exhibit will be at the Alexandria Black History Museum from April 6 until July 10, and the museum will also host a panel discussion to examine the civil rights movement in Virginia on April 20. Panelists include A. Melvin Miller, city activist Gwen Menefee and “comedy counselor” Andy Evans.