Professor’s memoir details his civil rights activism and VCU’s roots

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In a new autobiography, longtime Virginia Commonwealth University professor Edward Peeples, Ph.D., tells the story of his childhood in a working-class Richmond neighborhood in the 1930s and 40s and his surprising journey to become a civil rights activist and a key member of VCU's faculty in the university's early days.

Peeples, an associate professor emeritus of preventive medicine and community health at VCU, said the book, "Scalawag: A White Southerner's Journey Through Segregation to Human Rights Activism," serves as a case study of the many young Central Virginian activists who took part in the civil rights movement.

"It all began with my experience at RPI – Richmond Professional Institute [which became part of VCU when the university formed in 1968]," Peeples said. "I took a class taught by Alice Davis, a sociologist, who was a great influence on me and maybe thousands of grads, regardless of their politics or major. She got me thinking that my Southern way of life was a fabrication. And it just went on from there. At RPI, I discovered myself. I discovered another world."

Peeples' book was published recently by the University of Virginia Press and will be the focus of a VCU Libraries event on March 18 at 6:30 p.m. at the W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts, 922 Park Avenue in Richmond. The event will be free and open to the public, though registration is requested.

It will feature a panel discussion with Peeples and his book contributors, historians Nancy MacLean, Ph.D., the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University, and James Hershman Jr., Ph.D., a lecturer in the Graduate Liberal Studies Program at Georgetown University. John Moeser, Ph.D., a professor emeritus of urban studies and planning at VCU, will give an introduction. And John Kneebone, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of VCU's Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences, will moderate.

"I've known Ed Peeples for a long time. I did not know, as the memoir shows, how this wonderful man emerged from harsh and painful circumstances," Kneebone said. "Because his career, both professionally and as an activist, was tied up with the history of the Richmond Professional Institute and, after 1968, with the history of VCU, the book should be of interest to anyone associated with the university."

Born in 1935, Peeples grew up in an era of institutionalized racism, and attended segregated churches and schools. "I was locked into a way of life at the time," he said. "It was the late 1930s and through World War II, so you can probably imagine what that was like in Richmond."

At RPI, Peeples' perspective changed and he became what many of the white adults he grew up around viewed as a "traitor to the race."

In 1957, he experienced a major turning point when he attended the Encampment for Citizenship, a summer program that brought together young people of different races and backgrounds and promoted activism, civic responsibility and volunteerism. While there, he met Eleanor Roosevelt , Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Bunche, a United Nations pioneer and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, among others.  

"I had this sort of life that a lot of people wouldn't know about because Richmond newspapers didn't cover that sort of thing," he said. "In fact, they wanted to keep it quiet as part of the ‘Virginia Way.’ They wanted nothing to besmirch our perfect vision of ourselves, especially to others outside of Virginia."

In addition to being inspired at RPI and the Encampment for Citizenship, Peeples' sense of social justice had also been sparked several years earlier when he was turned down when seeking work in Cleveland. He  was told he was rejected because he was a "hillbilly."

"All those experiences merged in a confluence that led me to feel a moral outrage that was irresistible," he said. "When the civil rights movement came along, when I discovered it, I wanted to be a part of it."

After graduating from RPI, Peeples was drafted into the U.S. Navy and challenged racism in his unit. He then returned to Richmond and worked as a social worker, taking part in sit-ins and civil rights protests.

He went on to earn a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania. His thesis, "A Perspective of the Prince Edward County School Issue," explored the events surrounding "Massive Resistance," in which segregationists in Prince Edward County, Va., closed their public schools from 1959-64 rather than integrate them.

After his time at Penn, Peeples returned to Richmond and taught for two years at the School of Nursing at the Medical College of Virginia, now part of VCU.

"The dean had a progressive side. She used me, the only male on the full-time faculty, to teach other things," he said. "I taught a survey of world religions. I taught a course that she had me dream up – sort of a super humanities course. She wanted these women to be educated in a wider sense. I did my bit to do that."

Following his teaching stint at the School of Nursing, he went to the University of Kentucky and received a doctorate in medical behavioral science.

After earning his Ph.D., Peeples returned to Richmond yet again, and joined VCU's faculty one month after the university was formed.

"I and about three or four dozen other faculty joined the provost and others doing the central tasks needed to build a new university. I call this group the floundering fathers and mothers of VCU. We were doing it by the seat of our pants."

As a professor, Peeples continued his activism, agitating for good jobs, health care and housing. He pushed for VCU to create African-American studies courses and worked toward the equal treatment of women.

He was the first scholar in residence of VCU's honors program. And he played a key role in helping the university's library system to develop.

In the early days of VCU, he said, he was something of the administration's darling, having helped to recruit numerous faculty members. Eventually, however, his activism led to conflict with certain administrators.

"I have deep roots at VCU, RPI. And I have a great love for it. But also sometimes a contentious relationship with it," he said. "It took on the character of a spat with a lover."

At one point, he recalls, he was fired by the arts and sciences dean for being too controversial. However, he moved  to the medical campus to teach.

"I was canned, but they were so happy with my work at the medical school, I just moved there full time," he said.

Peeples taught at the medical campus for the majority of his career, retiring from full-time teaching in 1995. After his retirement, he did some consulting and then turned toward writing his autobiography.

"This book has taken seven years," he said. "The life has taken 79 years, the book only took seven."


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