Former VCU professor publishes memoir detailing life of social activism

Ed Peeples, Ph.D., has published a memoir of his life spent fighting for equal rights in Richmond. Photo courtesy of VCU libraries.

Sarah King
Staff Writer

Ed Peeples, Ph.D., a former professor who has stayed involved with almost every aspect of the VCU community, recently published his memoir, “Scalawag,” which details the past five decades of his life.

Peeples’ memoir is a narrative of his time spent as an activist during the civil rights movement and a participant in Richmond’s history.

Since his youth, Peeples has worked toward equal housing and employment opportunities, the integration of public schools in Prince Edward County and the transformation of the Richmond Professional Institute into VCU, as well as the creation of the African American studies department in the ’60s.

“I never dreamed we could desegregate public accommodations because … they had so much power over everybody. I thought we would lose, but somebody had to tilt the windmills,” Peeples said. “I really try to expose the importance of the work of the little guys in my book, and their work in communities all across the South even after (Martin Luther King, Jr.) left town. All the reporters left and went back to their desk and the rest of us went to work trying to break the boundaries hidden in the crevices of resistance.”

Peeples became known as a “traitor to his race” for his work in collaboration with African American groups throughout the community to achieve equality, which are detailed in his memoir.

“His papers … include his thesis on Prince Edward County, but he also went around the state comparing black and white schools and came up with what they were spending per student. It illustrated that ‘separate but equal’ was not in fact equal, which was a big deal at that time,” said Ray Bonis, special collections and archives coordinator at the VCU library.

Peeples said his novel came to be through an unexpected birth. Peeples had written essays and short stories throughout his youth pertaining to many different aspects of the civil rights movement and transformation of VCU, Richmond and the South. In later years, the VCU archives posted some of his photos and essays on the web, which garnered Peeples attention among the historical and scholarly community.

“Lots of people came to see me starting in 2004 because that was the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, and Prince Edward was one of the Brown cases,” Peeples said. “Among those people was Nancy MacLean. She read some of those stories, and she said ‘this should be a book’ and that’s how the whole thing got started.”

MacLean, a professor of history at Duke University, helped compile and edit the 250-page memoir which was published by the University of Virginia Press last month.

“Ed’s bravery and ingenuity helped make the university and city more inclusive and life-sustaining,” MacLean said. “I don’t believe we can understand how social change works until we appreciate the motivations and life’s stories of individuals like Ed.”

Peeples said the hardest part of writing the memoir was that he could not include all the stories, or would have to shorten stories, to fit the page limit.

“It wasn’t easy to write because I was used to writing scientific reports, and the whole idea of the scientific enterprise … is to put people to sleep,” Peeples said, laughing. “The whole idea with this (novel) is to wake people up.”

Since contributing to VCU’s founding in 1968, Peeples has been involved on the medical campus, the Massey Cancer Center and the honors college. He also took a part in the creation of the library archives as well as the sociology, anthropology and African American studies departments. Peeples retired from teaching at VCU in 1995 as an associate professor emeritus of preventative medicine and community health.

Peeples said his work to enhance the community was not an easy course of action. In 1972, Peeples was fired from VCU for the changes he was adamant about implementing. He said despite his education, he was an example of the residue of the “old world” that the generation needed to be rid of. Bonis said Peeples is the type of person who sticks to his beliefs.

“Ed is one of these people who walks it like he talks it. Since the ’50s he’s been working for campaigns and causes for the rights of humans in every facet of society,” Bonis said. “He’s dedicated to justice in our world and he’s someone who treats everyone fairly and equally, and its genuine, and everyone who gets to know him as a friend gets to recognize and appreciate that.”

Many of the photographs and essays Peeples has filed throughout the years, and even a correspondence between himself and King, are included in the library archives. Peeples also served as a board member on the Friends of the VCU Libraries from 2007-12.

“Scalawag” will be published in paperback after 2500 copies have sold and may be used assupplemental reading in university courses. Peeples said he receives no royalties until a certain number of books are sold, after that he only receives about 20 cents per book.

The novel’s release took place at the Singleton center on March 18, and many of his friends and family were in attendance. Peeples said that he never anticipated having his own book or an auditorium of people standing up and clapping for his life’s work. Peeples will also present at the Berglund Seminar Series for students at the  honors college later this month.

“I want people to know about all the heroes that walk quietly and work among the groups in the community that work to fight discrimination, know the heroes. The other, is that being a justice seeker can be simple,” Peeples said. “It’s not just sitting in and being covered by the press, it’s a multitude of other techniques that you can execute and begin the rippling effect (of) the small act that joins the stream.”

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