Hidden History: Dr. Ed Peeples, a ’20th-century scalawag’ for civil rights

Ed Peeples (center, bottom row) was active in the Civil Rights Movement. (Photo: The Valentine)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Dr. Ed Peeples sits back in a chair at his dining room table. A binder of photographs is open in front of him, and he reflects on each image as he thumbs through them.

“I was a 20th-century scalawag,” says Peeples. “That story is long and complicated and has hundred of tributaries I paddled up.”

Ed Peeples received this letter from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. early on in his activism efforts. (Courtesy: Dr. Ed Peeples)
Ed Peeples received this letter from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. early on in his activism efforts. (Courtesy: Dr. Ed Peeples)

Peeples, a white man who was visible and vocal amidst the strife of 1960’s Virginia, was born in working-class Richmond in 1935. He attended segregated schools and says he was raised to be a racist.

After earning his first college degree from Richmond Professional Institute, which is now Virginia Commonwealth University, Peeples joined the Navy.

“I was serving my country to bring freedom around the world, and in my home state 50 miles from my hometown, they were closing the schools and leaving black children out on the road,” he remembers that event in history that helped determine his life’s path.

In 1959, Prince Edward County officials chose to shut down schools instead of racially integrate them, as the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.

The school closings infuriated Peeples. He volunteered with the American Friends Service Committee to give black students opportunities to learn in Prince Edward every Saturday.

“We were trying to demonstrate solidarity with them,” he remembers.

While balancing his educational outreach and a full-time job, he hit the streets in Richmond with other civil rights protestors.

Ed Peeples demonstrated at Thalhimers two days before this protest. (Photo: Anderson Collection, The Valentine)
Ed Peeples demonstrated at Thalhimers two days before this protest. (Photo: Anderson Collection, The Valentine)

He was a Thalhimers Department Store two days before a monumental sit-in where dozens were arrested.

“Desegregation and the conquest over racism didn’t happen because Martin Luther King came to Richmond,” he reflects. “It came because Martin Luther King came to Richmond and gave us a mandate to work on it.”

Peeples published his memoirs in 2014. ‘Scalawag: A White Southerner’s Journey through Segregation to Human Rights Activism‘ preserves his story and those of activists with whom he fought tirelessly for equal rights.

As the 81-year-old’s generation is dwindling down, Peeples says he is witnessing a new civil rights era that has a fire, much like his that started nearly six decades ago.

“Use your own talents, your own gifts, your own momentum, wrestle with your own fears,” he shares a message with today’s activist.

February is Black History Month. Join 8News each Wednesday in February at 6:00 p.m. for Hidden History, a series highlighting people and events that helped to shape the Richmond region.

Central Virginia is rich with hidden history. 8News is here to help you uncover it. Click here for more Hidden History. 

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