Class of 63 | I want people to know the story, Dr. Edward Peeples G63 was saying. I dont want to lose the minutiae that affected peoples lives during segregation. Once that disappears, we cant be forewarned.
Peeples has chronicled some important chapters of that story, and played an active part in others. Having come of age in segregated Richmond, Virginia, during the 1940s, he evolved from having no clue that anything was wrong with that system (which he likens to a polite version of the Stalinist regime) to immersing himself in the Civil Rights movement.
the time he arrived at Penn in 1961, Peeples had taken part in hundreds
of sit-ins and other efforts to desegregate white-only restaurants
in the Richmond area. He went on to write his masters thesis in human
relations on the Prince Edward County, Virginia, school-closing. There,
in 1951, the students of the all-black Moton High School walked out
to protest the conditions of their school, which had been ruled inadequate
by the states Board of Education four years earlier, and to demand
facilities equal to those provided to white high-school students.
Though the county did build a new black-only school in 1953, Peeples
But even after Virginia ended its massive resistance to court-ordered integration in 1959, Prince Edward County did not. Instead, county officials closed all its public schools, and an all-white private school was built with contributions from segregationists around the country. For the next five years, African-American children (and a number of poor white children) had no schools.
was one of most excruciating and painful things I witnessed, says
Peeples, now professor emeritus of preventive medicine and community
health at Virginia Commonwealth University, whose library has a collection
of his papers and photographs (http://www.library.vcu.edu/jbc/speccoll/pec.html).
It wasnt just that more than 2,300 black students were thrown out into the cold, he says. The tragedy was in the way families were fractured. When the schools were closed, all the black teachers were fired. All the white teachers were hired for the private school. Black women teachers often had to leave the county to find a job in another county or state. Many of their husbands were farmers, and the farmer had to take care of the children and continue to make a living.
The poor whites had the same problem, he adds. For those who went elsewhere, there were a number of success stories, but the rest of themmy guess is about 1,500I call them the Lost Generation.
During his research, Peeples took photographs of the countys schools and other aspects of segregated life, and he still recalls the atmosphere of absolute hegemony by the local oligarchy, which he describes as clouds of intimidation that led to a sense of helplessness to do anything. One such cloud emerged when a group of men with shotguns convinced him that he might want to point his camera in a different direction.
Not long after he completed his masters thesis at PennA Perspective
of the Prince Edward County (Va.) School Issuein the spring of 1963,
Penns library started getting requests. One letter came from Thurgood
Marshall, then a circuit judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals, requesting
multiple copies. The U.S. Office of Education and Department of Justice
used it as a briefing document in seeking a resolution of the case,
even though the Kennedy administration, not wanting to alienate Virginias
powerful Senator Harry Byrd, had been generally unsupportive of the
locked-out students. Peeples himself went to Washington to brief a
deputy commissioner of education, and was invited by the Civil Rights
Commission to contribute to a study by Dr. J. Kenneth Morland, who
had served as an expert
Peeples describes his thesis as really a handbook, the first thing written other than a short article that was sympathetic for desegregation. There is, he argues, no such thing as a value-free position in science.
In addition to the fact that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision, the Prince Edward County story has a particular relevance in an era of de facto segregation, notes Peeples, who is also on the advisory staff of a documentary film, They Closed Our Schools, currently in production (http://www.mercyseatfilms.com/).
Public schools are on the run, he warns. There are some great charter and parochial schools, where tuition grants are appropriate. But what we saw in Prince Edward County is happening all over again. Its kind of a warning about how we could get into this jam again. Were re-segregating our public schools all over this nation.S.H.