- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 15, 2002

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 educating blacks after the Civil War.

A recent exhibit called "Blackface" featured photographs by David Levinthal of original objects of black memorabilia ranging from "Mammy" cookie jars to Sambo images.

"This was a controversial exhibit for us," Ms. Davis says. "We had lots of differing opinions. Some think we should show it because we don't ever want to forget what blacks fought against; others think it should be forgotten."

But Ms. Davis emphasizes the reach of the center beyond the exhibits.

"It's not just a museum," Ms. Davis says. "It's part of the community. There's something for everyone."

Special events at the center include heritage celebrations, holiday parties, scholarship programs and contests. On any given Saturday, the center might play host to an African language class, a tutoring program or a girls' book club. Members of the National Congress of Black Women, the Urban League Young Professionals Network and the Bahai faith convene here, as well.

One weekday morning found the Watson Reading Room abuzz with a group of young children and their mothers members of the Alexandria chapter of Mocha Moms, a support group for mothers who stay home with their children working diligently on an art project.

Mocha Mom Angela Moore, who has two children, calls the center "a vital resource. I'm a home-schooling mom and have come in with my daughter to take advantage of the resources. It's a wealth of information. Every time you come in, you find something else."

She says that, during an initial visit to the center, she realized "one of my great-uncles was one of those young men who staged the sit-in."

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