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Desegregating Libraries in Fairfax County


Desegregating Libraries

Discover the history of unequal access in our community and how residents effected change.

By Chris Barbuschak and Suzanne LaPierre, Virginiana Assistant and Virginiana Specialist Librarian at the Virginia Room in City of Fairfax Regional Library

Questioning Our Past

We know that public schools were once segregated in Fairfax County, but what about public libraries? Was Fairfax County Public Library (FCPL) ever segregated? What about other local libraries? The FCPL Board of Trustees posed these questions early in 2021, launching Virginia Room librarians on a research journey. They uncovered a story that needed to be told.

Unequal Access

The Virginia 1946 Acts of Assembly mandated libraries receiving state aid serve all residents. However, this was often interpreted to mean not that library buildings must be integrated, but that some form of service be provided, such as bookmobile stops or separate, segregated libraries for Black residents. Some libraries failed to provide even that.

In 1954, the landmark Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education found separate-but-equal doctrine unconstitutional. However, through the 1950s and even into the ‘60s, many of Virginia’s public libraries remained whites-only until Black citizens protested or sued for integration.

Several whites-only libraries existed in Fairfax County before FCPL was founded in 1939. From its inception, FCPL agreed to serve the county’s Black residents. However, this service was initially limited to segregated bookmobile deposit stations and partnerships with existing whites-only community libraries. It was not until 1954 that the system was fully integrated.

Opening to All

William McKinley Carter (1897-1977), a charter member of the Fairfax County NAACP, was instrumental in procuring an FCPL branch to serve everyone in the Town of Vienna, where the existing town library had a whites-only policy. In 1958, Carter co-founded the Vienna Friends of the Library in his living room and led a successful community effort to open the Patrick Henry Library in 1962 as an integrated library facility.

The right of all residents to use public libraries is one that many advocates labored to establish. Awareness of our segregated past motivates efforts towards a more inclusive and equitable future. More information about this topic can be found in the Unequal Access: The Desegregation of Public Libraries in Northern Virginia report presented to the FCPL Board of Trustees and recorded virtual program presented to the public.

Fairfax Virtual Assistant