In Remembrance: Dr. Edward Peeples, longtime VCU professor and tireless social justice advocate
September 10, 2019
Edward Harden Peeples Jr., Ph.D., a longtime civil rights advocate and professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, died on Sept. 7. He was 84.
Dr. Peeples was emeritus associate professor of preventive medicine and community health at VCU. His academic focus was in the fields of medical behavioral science, public health, epidemiology and sociology, but he also conducted extensive research in issues of social justice and was a civil rights advocate who was involved in a variety of human rights reforms in Virginia and elsewhere in the South.
“Ed was a beloved figure in our community life, and deeply respected for his passion and activism in social justice and human rights,” said John Ulmschneider, dean of libraries and university librarian at VCU.
Dr. Peeples, who was born in 1935, was an alumnus of Richmond Professional Institute, where he received a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education in 1957 and was a member of the basketball team. He later received a master’s degree in human relations (intergroup relations) from the University of Pennsylvania in 1963 and a Ph.D. in sociology with a concentration in medical behavioral science from the University of Kentucky in 1972. He taught at the Medical College of Virginia and RPI beginning in 1963, left to focus on his Ph.D., and then returned to teach at the newly formed VCU in 1968.
In 2014, Peeples recalled the work associated with the university’s early days.
“I and about three or four dozen other faculty joined the provost and others doing the central tasks needed to build a new university,” Peeples said. “I call this group the floundering fathers and mothers of VCU. We were doing it by the seat of our pants.”
Peeples retired from his teaching position in 1995. He was the first scholar in residence of VCU's honors program, and he played an active role in the development of the university's library system. As an academic, Peeples taught, conducted research, consulted and published in the fields of medical behavioral science (behavioral factors governing clinical practice in the helping professions), behavioral epidemiology (behavioral causes, complications and consequences of disease, injury and disability), public health and community medicine, violence prevention, research methodology, intergroup relations (including race and ethnic relations and minority health), and sociology.
Peeples also advocated at VCU on issues related to jobs, health care and housing. He pushed for VCU to create African American studies courses and worked toward the equal treatment of women. His efforts sometimes led to clashes with administrators.
“I have deep roots at VCU, RPI. And I have a great love for it. But also sometimes a contentious relationship with it,” he said. “It took on the character of a spat with a lover.”
'I discovered another world’
Raised in the segregated South, Peeples told VCU News in 2014 after the publication of his memoir, Scalawag: A White Southerner’s Journey through Segregation to Human Rights Activism, that his interest in civil rights began while he was a student at RPI in the mid-1950s.
“I took a class taught by Alice Davis, a sociologist, who was a great influence on me and maybe thousands of grads, regardless of their politics or major,” Peeples said. “She got me thinking that my Southern way of life was a fabrication. And it just went on from there. At RPI, I discovered myself. I discovered another world.”
In 1957, he experienced a major turning point when he attended the Encampment for Citizenship, a summer program that brought together young people of different races and backgrounds and promoted activism, civic responsibility and volunteerism. While there, he met Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Bunche, a United Nations pioneer and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, among others. VCU Libraries holds papers related to the Encampment and has an online exhibit that details its influence. https://gallery.library.vcu.edu/exhibits/show/encampment-for-citizenship
Peeples served in the Navy after graduating from RPI. Later, following his discharge in 1959, he became involved in the response to Prince Edward County’s decision to close its public schools rather than integrate them. He also participated in the first of Richmond’s lunch counter sit-ins in 1960.
Peeples would later serve on the Commission on Human Relations for the city of Richmond and was appointed to the Richmond Environmental Commission. Peeples also worked tirelessly to help document the struggle for civil rights in Virginia and teamed with historians, researchers, various repositories and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission of the Virginia General Assembly on efforts tied to that work. Peeples received the Civil Rights Unsung Hero award from the Richmond branch of the NAACP in 2015. The VCU Alumni Association created the Edward H. Peeples Jr. Award for Social Justice to honor alumni for leadership in combating inequality and social injustice.
“I've always told people that Ed walked it like he talked it,” said Ray Bonis, senior research associate with VCU Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives, who started working with Peeples in the 1990s. “He was a committed activist who actually got things accomplished and brought light to problems that needed to be addressed. He was very helpful to numerous students over the years as a mentor and, later, when he retired, he helped many with their research on the struggle for civil rights. And he could be very funny. He was a warm and generous person.”
‘A lovely, exemplary human being’
VCU Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives has a large collection of Peeples’ papers documenting his life and work that has been used by many researchers studying civil rights in Virginia. The collection includes materials documenting the founding of the African American studies program at VCU. Peeples helped compile the course materials for the start of the program. Special Collections and Archives also has a seven-minute interview that Peeples did with Hugh Downs on the “Today” show in 1969 — “Ed said he might have been the first VCU professor on national TV,” Bonis said.
As part of its Peeples collection, VCU Libraries is home to the Edward H. Peeples Prince Edward County (Va.) Public Schools Collection, which explores the history of school segregation issues of the 1950s and 1960s in Prince Edward County. Through the Massive Resistance campaign, segregationists in Prince Edward County closed the public schools from 1959 to 1964 rather than integrate. Peeples was on the ground documenting the story for his graduate thesis at the University of Pennsylvania, and the collection includes more than 100 photographs of the shuttered public schools and whites-only private schools of the period — as well as the camera he used to take them. His work led to the creation of valuable documents, including some later incorporated into reports and briefings for the United States Commission on Civil Rights, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the U.S. Office of Education in their efforts to find a resolution to the Prince Edward County school closing issue.
Brian J. Daugherity, Ph.D., associate professor of history in the College of Humanities and Sciences, said he associates Peeples with traits of selflessness, determination and modesty.
“Ed dedicated his life to improving the lives of those less fortunate, advocating against injustice, and striving to make the world a better place,” Daugherity said. “His goodwill, generosity and stubborn refusal to accept intolerance are well documented. His life’s work serves as motivation and inspiration for those who knew him well, and also for generations to come.”
John Kneebone, Ph.D., retired professor of history, called Peeples “a lovely, exemplary human being.”
“His memoir shows how he took one step after another, courageously, to act on his heart's faith and to make things better for others,” Kneebone said. “He is typical, if that word could ever be used about Ed, of all the everyday people who acted heroically in the civil rights movement. VCU can be proud of him, for he acknowledged being a product of RPI and a great contributor to what has become today's VCU. Somehow, he combined integrity and courage to dissent with a huge heart and vast sympathy for others. It was an honor to be his friend, as thousands can testify.”
More about Dr. Peeples
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In lieu of flowers, please consider making a memorial gift to VCU Libraries, Special Collections and Archives or to the Vivia Peeples Eden Scholarship, University of South Carolina, Salkehatchie campus, Allendale, S.C.; or to the Encampment for Citizenship.
A version of this article by Tom Gresham of University Public Affairs was published by VCU and is used with permission.