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Scalawag: A White Southerner's Journey through Segregation to Human Rights Activism

With Nancy MacLean
Afterword by James H. Hershman
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Scalawagtells the surprising story of a white working-class boy who became an unlikely civil rights activist. Born in 1935 in Richmond, where he was sent to segregated churches and schools, Ed Peeples was taught the ethos and lore of white supremacy by every adult in his young life. That message came with an equally cruel one-that, as the child of a wage-earning single mother, he was destined for failure.

    But by age nineteen Peeples became what the whites in his world called a "traitor to the race." Pushed by a lone teacher to think critically, Peeples found his way to the black freedom struggle and began a long life of activism. He challenged racism in his U.S. Navy unit and engaged in sit-ins and community organizing. Later, as a university professor, he agitated for good jobs, health care, and decent housing for all, pushed for the creation of African American studies courses at his university, and worked toward equal treatment for women, prison reform, and more. Peeples did most of his human rights work in his native Virginia, and his story reveals how institutional racism pervaded the Upper South as much as the Deep South.

    Covering fifty years' participation in the long civil rights movement, Peeples's gripping story brings to life an unsung activist culture to which countless forgotten individuals contributed, over time expanding their commitment from civil rights to other causes. This engrossing, witty tale of escape from what once seemed certain fate invites readers to reflect on how moral courage can transform a life.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3540-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION Peeples’s History as Social Movement History
    (pp. xiii-xxii)
    Nancy MacLean

    THIS IS THE STORY of a lifetime of human rights activism outside the spotlight. For the half century since he was a college student, Ed Peeples has been trying to make a difference in the world. But unlike the social movement leaders seen on the evening news and featured in weighty biographies, his have been efforts of the kind that ordinary mortals can manage: squeezed in between classes and deadlines when in school, improvised on the job, and juggled with parenting and work obligations. He has volunteered, written letters, organized petitions, attended meetings, picketed, marched, sat in, recruited others—and...


    • 1 The Arrival of Another Birthright Segregationist
      (pp. 3-11)

      My mother picked a helluva day for me to arrive on this earth: April 20, 1935, the same birthday as Adolf Hitler, who at that very moment was engaged in the violent creation of his Aryan empire. This proved to be a strange coincidence, because I contended all my adult life with some of the ideas that Hitler and the German Nazi regime had borrowed from America’s white supremacist ideology, especially as it was applied in my native Virginia.

      One such dose of poison came to the Old Dominion from the eugenics movement. In 1922 Dr. H. H. Laughlin, a...

    • 2 Learning God’s Primary Colors
      (pp. 12-18)

      While we often visited South Carolina, the preponderance of my whiteness education took place in Richmond, and the basic message was the same. I can recall sensing as early as about age five how much race mattered to adults. They impressed upon me that there were two kinds of God’s creatures that mattered most in life: “white people” and “the coloreds.” In those days, a white child was expected to learn several essential lessons about race: (1) what racial category each person you encountered should be put in; (2) the diction, tones of voice, body language, and facial expressions necessary...

    • 3 Boys Will Be Boys
      (pp. 19-25)

      Unfortunately the Jesus of my faith proved to be no match for the malicious white kids from my Southside neighborhood who lured me into some of their racist acts of cruelty. In my time, much of the white South observed a proud tradition of hypermasculine truculence, and we had more than our share of power-lusting teenage boys roaming our streets in the so-called good old days. When the opportunity arose this aggression was directed at blacks. But African Americans were not the boys’ only victims. They also took pleasure in bullying white youth who seemed different or vulnerable. Kids who...

    • 4 Out of the Family Tempest
      (pp. 26-31)

      When I was 13 we moved to Northside Richmond, much closer to the beauty shop where my mother, our breadwinner, worked. It was a more middle-class neighborhood with fewer miscreants and enticements for juvenile delinquency. I am sure my mother had this in mind when she managed to buy our little brick house on Brook Road.

      At this point the conflict with my father was becoming more intense—and dangerous. He was drinking heavily, rarely had a job, and spent most of his time around the house like a zombie. My mother worked long hours, so I was trapped in...

    • 5 Receiving My Class Assignment in High School
      (pp. 32-36)

      Having left my father standing on the stoop at our Richmond house in February 1952, my mother, Steve, and I headed for Jacksonville to start a new life. We moved into my Aunt Mamie’s spare room for a few months until we found a two-room apartment near our schools. My mother got a job for a little over $100 a month as a beautician in the hair salon of the city’s largest department store, and my brother entered the neighborhood elementary school.

      I warily entered my second high school, Robert E. Lee High. In Richmond I had attended Thomas Jefferson...


    • 6 The Hillbilly Blues
      (pp. 39-43)

      In 1953, a couple of mornings after graduating 330 out of 424 seniors from Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, I was headed north to Cleveland, Ohio, to look for work. I was travelling with a seventeen-year-old named Dick who was the son of my mother’s friend. Dick and I had never gotten along very well. I only chose to go to Cleveland with him because he had been there before and had returned with wondrous tales of big money to be made in the city’s vast manufacturing industries. We had planned this trip for months, and he had...

    • 7 Dr. Alice Recruits Another Justice Seeker
      (pp. 44-50)

      My reinstatement at rpi began a process of transforming a provincial, naive, and bigoted southern white boy into a young man with a budding passion for racial justice and human rights. One person who made a huge difference for me and many other students was a sociology professor named Alice Davis, whom we students affectionately called “Dr. Alice.” Most students initially took her class because it didn’t have required readings, homework, or tests. All you had to do was join in the class polemics over what at first seemed to us weird controversial topics, then dash off your opinions at...

    • 8 Boot Camp for Human Rights
      (pp. 51-61)

      By the end of my sophomore year at RPI, I was struggling with a torrent of questions about my upbringing. New ideas and experiences and reading were showing me that much of our precious “southern way of life” was a preposterous and cruel fabrication. I felt betrayed by my family, my preacher, my teachers, and all the other adults in my community. They had told me ugly lies about African Americans and others who they said were fundamentally different from us and therefore less deserving of life’s gifts. They had used my innocence to make me complicit in their white...

    • 9 Some Shipmates Are More Equal than Others
      (pp. 62-68)

      Uncle sam insisted that my quest for democracy in America would have to wait. He needed me in his “Power for Peace” military force to help spread “freedom” across the world. My fantasy that the navy would give me a billet somewhere like the South Pacific proved to be just that—a fantasy. In September 1957 I found myself at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in northern Illinois for boot camp, and after that I traveled across the road to Camp Barry for my duty station. My home for the next twenty months of 1958 and 1959 was the...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)

    • 10 Reconnecting with the Struggle on the Home Front
      (pp. 71-76)

      Back in richmond after my discharge in September of 1959, I longed to meet other committed people and get into the justice struggle. My unwillingness to hide my liberal racial and religious views made it difficult to find work as a teacher and coach. But I finally landed a job as a caseworker with the city Social Service Bureau, an agency desperate for anyone with a college degree. This was the unit of the Department of Welfare responsible for investigating eligibility and administering public assistance grants for the elderly, the disabled, families with dependent children, and those who qualified for...

    • 11 Sit-ins Come to the Old Capitol of the Confederacy
      (pp. 77-85)

      When i went to work at the city welfare department, I had only undertaken small personal acts against segregation. But by 1960 many of my new Richmond friends and I were looking to widen our involvement in the fight for civil rights. Our generation of activists was determined to take the battle for equality beyond the courts to direct action. In Richmond segregated restaurants and the racist practices of retail stores became our targets. The civil rights movement in other parts of the South had fueled our confidence; segregation finally seemed vulnerable.

      Having followed the news of the sit-ins in...

    • 12 “They Closed Our Schools”
      (pp. 86-93)

      In the fall of 1959, as I was leaving the navy, I learned that officials in Prince Edward County, Virginia, were closing the public schools to circumvent court-ordered desegregation. I was outraged and ashamed of my home state. I pledged to myself to get involved. In my first months at the welfare department this oath gnawed at me. Finally in December I drove over to Prince Edward to check it out.

      The shutdowns, I learned, followed decades of struggle for equal education waged by a determined black community. But this rural, Southside Virginia county got a big jolt in April...

    • 13 The Bridge over the Mason-Dixon Line
      (pp. 94-103)

      During the summer of 1961 I finally figured out the career I wanted and how to train for it. I applied to graduate programs in human relations, an interdisciplinary social science field that centered on the study of racial, ethnic, and religious intergroup encounters. With a fellowship from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, I began work in September on a master’s degree. At the time of the move from Richmond, I was married to my first wife. (She was a woman of rare creative and intellectual gift s and a devoted mother to our daughters. But we later divorced,...

    • 14 A New Career and Maybe a New Virginia?
      (pp. 104-119)

      The summer of 1963 had me scrambling: traveling back and forth between Washington for consultations on the Prince Edward issue, Pennsylvania for the camp job, and Richmond to look for a place to live before I began my new job at the Medical College of Virginia. It was my first college teaching position, as an instructor in their nursing school. My initial job was teaching introductory sociology, but before long I was teaching and very much enjoying courses in anthropology, a survey of the world’s major religions, and other social science–related courses. I became one of only two full-time...

    • 15 Communists, Sex Fiends, and Half-Breeds Take the Struggle to Appalachia
      (pp. 120-135)

      My two years of teaching at MCV proved to be a turning point in what heretofore had been a happenstance career path. The exposure to the inner workings of a big teaching hospital; the education of physicians, dentists, pharmacists, nurses, and all the other health professionals; and the challenges faced by the patients in their quest for healing all fascinated me. When I learned that there were programs for the study of how the social and behavioral sciences contribute to these processes, I knew that I had to be a part of that.

      The University of Kentucky had one of...

    • 16 Confronting the Racism of the “Baron” of Kentucky Basketball
      (pp. 136-140)

      Over the years I learned a lot of different ways to stick it to segregation and white supremacy. One unique opportunity came after I returned to the University of Kentucky from Barbourville and resumed my PhD studies. The work was intense and spare time short. But I managed to find time to play with my young daughters and, of course, to follow the basketball fortunes of the UK Wildcats. For many decades Kentucky had been one of the preeminent college basketball programs in the country under the legendary coach Adolph Rupp. His rule over the college game was such that...

  8. PART FOUR Combating Old Injustices in New Finery

    • 17 An Activist Professor in a New University in the Old Capital of the Confederacy
      (pp. 143-151)

      When i left MCV for graduate school in Lexington, Fred Spencer and I both assumed that I would likely return to take a position in his Department of Preventive Medicine. At that time Virginia Commonwealth University was little more than a glimmer in the eyes of those who wished to see Virginia get serious about higher education. But in July 1968 the Medical College of Virginia merged with the Richmond Professional Institute to form VCU, and the administration was frantically looking for faculty and staff to launch this new institution. So they were glad to get a guy like me:...

    • 18 If the Hurricane Don’t Blow You Away, the Government Will
      (pp. 152-159)

      In august of 1969, a year after our return to Richmond, I got a call from the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia asking me to lead a research team to the hurricane-devastated Mississippi Gulf Coast. They wanted us to document the response of the federal, state, and local government and the private disaster relief agencies to the needs of minority and poor victims of Hurricane Camille. The hurricane had hit very nearly the same area that was hammered by Katrina thirty-six years later. In their work in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, two AFSC associates had witnessed some of the...

    • 19 Guilty of Pushing Racial Justice Too Fast
      (pp. 160-166)

      In the months after my return from Mississippi, there was much to please me. The student responses in my classes were better than I could have ever hoped for. The university was making significant progress in its facilities, faculty recruitment, curriculum, and reputation. And my good friends Bob and Vincent were excited about their work. But January 28, 1970, brought the most joy—the birth of my third daughter, Cecily Jane Peeples. So by 1971, our home was filled with the joyful rumpus of three lively girls: a nine-year-old, a six-year-old, and a toddler. Little did we suspect then how...

    • 20 New Human Rights Struggles in the Era of Stealth Racism
      (pp. 167-182)

      In the early seventies the civil rights movement we once knew in Richmond evolved into something different. It had to because, where previously the targets had been clear and bald-faced segregation laws and customs and those who exercised and protected them, in the seventies white supremacy began to go underground—what I called “stealth racism.” Drawing a veil over racism in Mississippi may have been a difficult job, but white Virginians already had a formula for putting the best face on their strategies to maintain dominance: what Douglas Southall Freeman, the Robert E. Lee biographer and longtime editor of the...

  9. EPILOGUE Finally a Kinsman with Whom I Am Not a Stranger
    (pp. 183-192)

    By the late seventies the tension between my parents and me regarding race lessened somewhat. The demise of legal segregation made me finally seem a bit more mainstream and them more the outliers. With part of the uneasiness gone, my mother and I were able to revive some of the early devotion between us, especially as our contacts involved her grandchildren. But there remained an unspoken mindfulness between us—we were of two different worlds. She continued to find other places to stay overnight when in Richmond. Yet we did much to bridge those two worlds before my beloved mother,...

  10. AFTERWORD Peeples’s History and Virginia History
    (pp. 193-200)
    James H. Hershman Jr.

    ED PEEPLES’S MEMOIR reminds us that it is human beings, not abstract concepts, that create social change. Individuals like Peeples who challenge dominant powers by standing up for justice and human rights play a crucial role. Their seemingly marginal voices and actions trigger a larger social conscience that becomes a compelling moral force in society. This story can be read as part of the universal quest for human rights, but it is also very much a Virginia story, grounded in the Old Dominion’s civil and human rights struggles.

    In the middle of the last century, Virginia was a forbidding terrain...

    (pp. 201-204)
    (pp. 205-208)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 209-222)