All too often when people are cocksure about something, they really don’t know what they’re talking about. Doctrines rule civilizations, sometimes for millennia, before they’re challenged. And faith, unquestioned, often translates into ignorance. Ignorance, of course, fuels bigotry and leads to the gas chamber. The best way to discover any truth is to challenge the reigning authority. And the best way to understand a fellow citizen is to walk in shoes comparable to his own.
That’s pretty much what happened to Edward Harden Peeples, V when he was a young man, not quite out of his teens. A series of three incidents would make him question beliefs that had been drummed into him as fact from the time he was an infant.
Ed was born at old St. Luke’s Hospital (long gone now) on West Grace Street. And for the rest of his life he would be tied to that area in the lower Fan District. As a matter of fact, it would be in that very hospital that Ed would challenge prevailing notions of right and wrong which turned out to be so utterly wrong.
He spent much of his early life in South Richmond in hardcore blue collar neighborhoods that had grown up in the shadow of Model Tobacco and Philip Morris. Ed was twelfth generation American and was taught entitlement from a time before he could speak. His people, who were called Peebles when they came to Virginia in 1649, stole property as authorized by England in what became Prince George County. Peebles became Peeples down in Low Country South Carolina and they owned many slaves so they could live the easy, patrician life. Of course, these people lost everything when justice began being served after the Civil War, but they still believed they were special and superior. A pathetic fallen aristocracy. Those notions persisted right up into the twentieth century.
“My father was an ardent racist,” Ed says. “He was also a coward. He wouldn’t dare go confront a black because he would have got his ass kicked. That was my father. He perceived himself as an aristocrat but was downwardly mobile. I was trained to be a white supremacist in every way and until I was 18 years old I never met anybody who was a critic of segregation or ever spoke of the issue of race without reference to superiority of whites. I was in a church, a nondenominational fundamentalist group, and the preacher taught us that blacks were inferior and my teachers told me that.
When Ed left the Richmond public elementary schools he had learned just two things: “That if you put all the cigarettes we manufactured in Richmond end to end they would go to the moon and back eleven times. And also that the man closest to God was Robert E. Lee.”
Even Ed’s mother, much beloved by him, was a racist. “My mom was a racist too,” he says. “But she was a dear person and if she had been in any other culture she wouldn’t have been this way.”
And of course, Ed became a racist too. As a young boy Ed fell in with a rough crowd of boys who would ride down a street on their bikes pretending to be Confederate soldiers mounted on horses. They would pass several row homes huddled together in a dip in the street and take aim with their squirrel rifles then take potshots at the African-Americans who lived there. No one was ever injured but as Ed speaks you can tell the memory still haunts him.
We’re seated in the great room of Ed’s condominium at Ginter Place. It’s an open, airy space with a bank of windows framing the wintry afternoon.
He tells me that his mother left his father when she realized he was never going to change his abusive ways. “My father was just an authority figure with me,” Ed recalls. “But my mother was a parent through and through.” Though she was only making $28 a week as a hairdresser, she managed to put enough money together to pack Ed and his brother into the Dodge and head south to Florida, where she was born. She was a good looking who had once represented Bradenton in the Miss Florida Beauty Pageant and she had her share of husbands over the years.
“But she was good about me and my brother,” Ed tells me. “She was good about getting us through school and she was ambitious for us. She wanted us to have white collar jobs.”
So at age 16 Ed was transplanted to Jacksonville, Florida. “We lived with my aunt and me and my mother and my brother slept in the same bed,” says Ed. “And then we got a little two-bedroom apartment and her bed came out of the wall and my brother and I had a separate bed.”
Academically, Ed just got by and after graduation he and a friend moved up to Cleveland, Ohio seeking factory work. “People told me they were making a hundred dollars a week and I was getting paid thirty-two cents an hour when I could find the work,” he says. Although he never found factory work in Cleveland, Ed would discover something there that would lay the groundwork that would define the rest of his life.
It started when he entered a factory and applied for a job there. The man behind the counter was all smiles until Ed opened his mouth. It wasn’t what he said it was how he said it in his distinctive Southern drawl.
“The smile left his face just like that,” Ed remembers. “And he said to me, ‘We don’t hire hillbillies. So he knew I was a Southerner just from two sentences. They had a lot of experience with immigrants from the South, whites, mostly from Mississippi Tennessee and Kentucky. It cut me to the quick. I didn’t dream there were people who didn’t like Southerners. It was the oddest thing to me and it kind of hurt. But I think of it today as one of the first instances that told me there are underdogs in this society and I was one of them now.”
For Ed that moment was one of learning readiness, a softening of hard ground to prepare the soil for planting. And a seed was planted and two more would follow later that same summer up in Ohio.
“The second seed was planted when I went to a 3-D movie and put on these glasses for the first time with some boys I met at the playground,” Ed says. “I noticed there were black people in there and I remember looking at them in the dark and saw that the white people tolerated them. I walked outside the theater and I noticed the black people walking along with everyone else and it seemed harmless. So this was not a big deal and another seed was sewn.”
The last seed was planted on a basketball court. There Ed encountered a young black man who eyed him warily when he heard the Southern accent. This young man decided to take Ed on as two teams were selected. “And so he was good and I had never known blacks were good in basketball,” says Ed. “I had never seen a game with blacks in basketball even though Virginia Union was a powerhouse and everybody knew it and he was very aggressive and I was very aggressive too and I said to myself, ‘How dare this n***** push on me. If he was in my country we’d be kicking his ass.’”
And then something happened that would change Ed’s outlook forever. “As I played with him a sort of respect came over me and I began to wake up to the fact that this guy is good. And he began to relax and I began to see the respect creeping over him as well. I said to myself as I walked away, ‘You know he wasn’t half bad. He was good and playing with him wasn’t untoward in anyway. Look at my skin it’s still pink like it was before. And another seed was planted in my garden of liberation.”
But things were going from bad to worse on other fronts for Ed. “By the end of the summer in Ohio I was starving,” he says. “I was stealing food and I wrote my mother and she said, ‘Look you can come to Richmond there’s a place where you can take the drafting.’”
That place turned out to be Richmond Professional Institute, which later became Virginia Commonwealth University. And it would become Ed’s alma mater and later his academic home for many years. What’s more, while attending RPI, Ed harvested what he had sown.
Ed has a deep affection for RPI and says, “Like WRIR (Richmond’s alternative FM radio station) , RPI was the education for the rest of us. The emphasis of RPI was to get into your profession early. We weren’t a U.Va. We weren’t William and Mary. We were RPI. We were VCU.”
He ended up earning a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education and while taking classes the world seemed to open up to him. Ed studied everything he could and was drawn to sociology.
One Saturday morning as he made his way to a bakery down at Harrison and Grace Streets he saw a white man beating a black man in the middle of the street. A crowd had gathered and watched. But no one did anything. This black man was known to Ed; he was the night watchman for RPI and had frequently opened the gym late at night so Ed and his friends could shoot hoops.
“He was a dear guy and there he was in a pool of his own blood and this man was pounding on him,” Ed says. “I was stunned, and so I finally went in and grabbed the assailant and slung him on the ground by his clothes and started kicking him and carrying on and cursing him so he ran away. And nobody in the crowd would help I asked them call an ambulance and nobody would respond. I even knew a girl who was standing there, a young adult really, and she did nothing. He was very skinny black man with a speech impediment.”
Ed, a big man, picked the injured man up and carried him across the street to St. Luke’s Hospital where Ed himself had been born. “It was a quiet place and it was very small and the lobby was empty and there was a woman sitting behind the desk with a telephone,” he remembers. “There wasn’t very much activity and I went up there and I told the woman this man needs help and he was bleeding and it was all over me by this time and I set him down on the steps. And the woman said, ‘He can’t come in here.’ And I said, ‘Why not, he needs help? It’s an emergency. He may die, who knows.’”
And then the woman said this: “He can’t be here. Those people are supposed to go downtown.” By which she meant the segregated emergency room at the Medical College of Virginia.
“We don’t have time for that,” Ed told her. “We can’t move him.” And then he began to scream at her. “This is a clear failure of segregation,” he boomed. “Equal facilities. Hell no they’re not equal facilities. This man is dying in a pile on the staircase.”
The woman contacted an intern who was on call. Like the woman behind the counter, the intern said this black man could not be admitted to St. Luke’s.
“Again I got the same thing,” Ed says. “I began to get enraged but you don’t confront a doctor when you need one so I said, ‘You’re going to let him die right here.’ And he said, ‘He isn’t going to die.’ And I said, ‘How do you know?’ And he said, ‘Get him out of here or we’re going to call the police.’ And I said, ‘If you don’t see him and he dies the blood is on your hands.’”
Ed then took the black man over to Richmond Memorial Hospital and the treatment was much the same until he contacted the business manager at RPI who intervened. “And so they took him in and they examined him,” he says.
At RPI, Ed took a class in sociology taught by Dr. Alice Davis. Her approach to education was strictly Socratic and she challenged her students to think. Which is exactly what Ed Peeples did. He began to think for himself. He read widely in anthropology, history, race relations and religion.
“And I saw that the world was bigger than I ever dreamed,” says Ed. “It was bigger than my parents, or the clerks in my stores, or my teachers, or my preachers had told me. I began to see that they lied to me. They had trapped me into this game about oppressing black people and so my consciousness rose.”
Ed Peeples later received a master’s in intergroup relations from University of Pennsylvania and then a Ph.D. in medical behavioral science and sociology from University of Kentucky. And all through his professional career he taught at VCU on both its campuses. He taught medical sociology, introductory anthropology, survey of world religions, introduction to nursing as a profession and scores of other classes that he also developed.
And all the while he fought for justice. He put his neck on the line in Prince Edward County. He also fought for women’s rights and gay rights. He never shirked a good cause.
Then he tells me something we should all consider: “You need to decide how much you’re going to risk. Are you going to be courageous or are you going to run.”
Edward Harden Peeples, V never ran.