Civil Rights at the Petersburg Public Library

From the library’s establishment, the library was segregated. Black patrons were restricted to use of the side entrance on Marshall Street and to a browsing collection in the poorly lit basement. The upper floors and main entrance were reserved for white patrons. On February 27, 1960, one-hundred and forty African Americans, primarily students at Peabody High School and Virginia State College, entered the main entrance of the library and took all the seats in the Library. The Library closed for four days to all patrons while City Council, in spite of pleas to end library segregation, passed strict anti-trespassing ordinances to discourage further protest.

On March 7, fifteen black patrons entered the front door of the library and took seats. Eleven were arrested for violating the anti-trespassing ordinance and faced a fine of $1000 and up to one year in jail. Six posted bond and were released while five refused bail and stay in jail for two nights. On March 8, some 200 people staged prayer protest on the courthouse steps for the arrest and incarceration of the arrested library patrons. On March 9, over 1400 people gathered at Zion Baptist Church where the crowd was addressed by those released from jail after protesting the segregated library.

A telegram was read from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and $1115 in donations was collected for the library protestors. March 14 all eleven library protestors were convicted for trespassing. The next day, protestors filed an injunction in the Federal District Court in Richmond, asking the court to end the “humiliating and unconstitutional” practice of segregation in the library. More than 180 people in 30 cars caravanned from Petersburg to Richmond for the filing.

After a small sit-in, the library was closed on July 6, 1960, pending the result of the injunction. City officials used the time to discuss various legal matters, among them, the deed of the library, which specifically named the basement as being for “colored persons”.

On November 7, 1960, The Petersburg Public Library was reopened, the first municipally operated facility in Petersburg to be desegregated. On that day, there 100 patrons in the library and 15 were African American.

In December 1980, Petersburg native Wayne Crocker became the first African American Director of Library Services. For forty years, he has overseen the growth and development of the Library.