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Oral History Interview with Irving Linwood Peddrew, III
Irving Linwood Peddrew, III as a Cadet at VPI

Part One

[Begin tape A1, side 1]

Tamara Kennelly: Would you please begin by saying your name and, if you don't mind, your age?

Irving Linwood Peddrew, III: Irving Linwood Peddrew the third. I was born in August of 1935, and that makes me 67 at this time.

Irving Linwood Peddrew, III's high school graduation photo
Irving Linwood Peddrew, III's High School Graduation Photograph
Hampton, Virginia, 1953
Photo reproduced by Mr. Reuben Burrell, University Photographer, Hampton, Virginia

Kennelly: You were born in Hampton, Virginia?

Peddrew: That is correct.

Kennelly: Would you please describe the neighborhood you grew up in?

Peddrew: It was sort of a middle class neighborhood that was mixed, and it was predominately black, or as we called it Negro in those days, but it was a mixed neighborhood. I had friends of Caucasian persuasion as well as black friends, of course, in that area.

Kennelly: You were the first of five children?

Peddrew: That's correct. I'm the eldest.

Kennelly: You're the eldest. So would you tell me about your family?

Peddrew: Basically, a black family with typically black middle class values. My father had finished college, and my mother had two years of college, and they were both very protective but guided me quite a bit through the initial years through grammar school and high school. We weren't any different except that I suspect that I was taught more basic American-type middle class values. Meaning a classless type values. That is what pretty much prepared me for Tech. That I didn't sense or feel a need to express myself because I was viewed as a second-class citizen. I never felt that at all, never did. Although I know that is what I was categorized pretty much as.

I refused to let anyone define me as that. I didn't really realize it as being such then, but I know now that is basically what I felt that I was an American that was defined as a black American or as we called it then a Negro American, and that the general society classified me as a second class citizen. Which I refused to accept, because I never knew that to be the case. I never felt that, as such.

Kennelly: You felt that when you came to Virginia Tech then?

Peddrew: Well, it is not a matter of having felt... I know coming here in the more rural area of Virginia, the southwest Virginia, that I would probably run into individuals who had more basic ideas of what constituted a second-class citizenship and probably had me stereotypically situated in a second-class environment. I knew that was going to exist. I knew that I had to face that, but I never felt myself as being a second-class citizen with someone of inferior intelligence or an inferior being or whatever. That never, never occurred to me. I knew I would run into individuals who would consider me as such. I knew that was a strong possibility. Even more so than in my area of Virginia which was basically the southeastern part of Virginia, which I felt was--largely because of military installations--was a little bit more advanced and possibly more progressive than the southwest portion of Virginia, especially the rural southwest.

Kennelly: Where did your parents go to school?

Peddrew: My dad finished--it was called Hampton Institute then, and now Hampton University. My mother attended school there at Hampton up until she went through her sophomore year, so she had two years of college at Hampton Institute. They met there when my dad was in school, and he finished. Then they got married before my mother's junior year. She ceased her education, formal education at that time.

Kennelly: So was education really valued in your family?

Peddrew: You know, it was, and it wasn't. I mean what you had to realize as a black, growing up in the South then, you could have the greatest of credentials academically, and you were still basically a Negro or a second-class citizen. You had to recognize that. I knew that that was the case, and I was taught that that was the case. Although my parents emphasized education, they didn't possibly lean on it to the extent that other families did.

I wanted to finish college; I wanted to have an education. I realized after seeing some of the Ph.D.'s swabbing floors and acting as janitors that that wasn't the end to end all ends--that there was a very distinct possibility that I could have the greatest of degrees and the ultimate of educations and could still wind up basically in an inferior position. Taking orders and acting like someone who was a second-class person.

So my parents were very practical. For instance, I had a beautiful musical education, but my dad always discouraged me from getting into music. I had music lessons, but he said that he didn't think that was a good area for me to aspire to be in because it wasn't that great of a thing to be a musician. He had known a lot of musicians, and he had been a musician himself, and that wasn't that important to him. Although he gave me, or saw that I got, musical education--saxophone and clarinet lessons, and subsequently played in the marching band and concert band of my high school--he didn't emphasize that at all. He thought that that was not the way for me to proceed. I can understand that having met many musicians since then and having gone through the ins and outs of the entertainment business. I can understand how he felt that way. They were very, very practical. Some might have considered even too practical.

They emphasized education but said, you've got to guard it. You've got to be in a position where you can judge what's really good and what's right and what's fair, and you can't think that because you got the education that it is automatically going to make a big difference in your life, because that wasn't true with blacks at that time and to some degree isn't true, even now, unfortunately.

Kennelly: What did your father do?

Peddrew: My dad started out as a bricklayer at a time when the emphasis with blacks was on the trades, and that's what the education at Hampton Institute was followed in. It was tailors, bricklayers, carpenters, and that sort of thing. He was a bricklayer at that time. The situation changed for him quite a bit after he finished and was eventually hired by NASA. Initially, he had the education as a bricklayer.

Kennelly: Did your mother work?

Peddrew: My father discouraged that as much as possible. He was from the old school. He was the wage earner, and he made certain that he brought the money in and that my mom stayed home and took care of the house and raised the kids. That was his position pretty much all of his life. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case later on. My mom did get out and work a bit. She did some work with NASA where she was eventually terminated during the Nixon reduction in force that he had going, or that he put in force during his tenure. My mother had a number of jobs. One was with the police department in Hampton as a complaints taker, I think they called it then. She did a number of things, but primarily she assumed duties as a house maker and raised the five of us. That's a big enough job, I understand, the feminists will tell you that nowadays.

Kennelly: Did you as the eldest child have extra responsibilities in the family, special responsibilities?

Peddrew: Oh yeah. Especially when my mom decided that she would disobey my father's edicts and assume a position in the work force. I was instructed on how to prepare breakfast and how to care for my younger siblings. That was interesting. Preparing breakfasts in the morning and getting everybody together and trying to get them off to school was a bit of a challenge. I guess I didn't look upon it as being that great of a challenge at that time, but looking back on it, it was somewhat of a challenge. It wasn't something that I had to do on a continual basis. I don't know how long my mother worked. I really don't remember, but it was for a while, and during that time, I had to see that the kids were fed, my siblings were fed, and that they were off to their various pursuits. Which meant that they were basically off going to school. So I did that for a while, and I am sure that played a part, an important part, in the building of my character that I had to be able to help the younger kids get off and get situated so that they could get to school.

Kennelly: Did you work when you were in high school? Did you have a job yourself?

Peddrew: I did, but my father didn't want me to. He discouraged it. On my own I really wanted to, so I did get out to--I started to deliver newspapers and had a run of my own, but my dad never, never ever really wanted me to work outside of the home. It was important that I had certain chores within the home. He didn't want me to work outside, and I disobeyed, I guess, in that regard because I started out delivering newspapers I think when I was about thirteen.

It was important to me. I felt it important that I have some independent source of income and that I would be able to function pretty much independently although my father felt that he needed to maintain control of the family. I guess at that time that wasn't that unusual for the head of the family to want to maintain control. Maybe that was unusual in black families, I'm not sure about that. I know that it was important for him to maintain control and to be the source of financial support or whatever was necessary you know. When you had to buy books, and when you had to buy the gym uniform or those kinds of things, that I always had to go to him for that. You know, it wasn't all that bad. It was just something he felt that he needed to be in control of. I didn't agree with him then, and I don't agree with him now. That is pretty much what I obeyed or allowed myself to be directed towards, except that I did go out and get a job as a newspaper delivery boy at that time.

Kennelly: Was race an issue when you were growing up?

Peddrew: It was always an issue. When I was old enough to realize that there were some people who held me in such low regard, I realized that I had a hurdle to overcome. I guess with the protective atmosphere and environment of my family it didn't bother me as much as it probably bothered a lot of families, a lot of kids in black families. I never experienced first hand a lot of problems that a lot of black families experienced, because my father and mother were so protective. We lived in an area that was sort of integrated, and when I played with other kids, white kids, and I never realized the difference earlier.

Later on, I did only because of how other people viewed me not how I allowed them to view me, but how they particularly cared about seeing me as a person of inferior character and so forth. My parents never allowed me to feel that, to feel the brunt of that, so I never really thought of myself as a second-class citizen. I knew I was being thought of as that, but I never thought of myself that way. I know that now as being I never allowed someone to define myself or define my character integrity. I never did. I didn't think of it being that then. All I knew was that I was not an inferior person. I never thought of myself as a second-class person. My family was such that they never allowed me to think in those terms, so I never grew up thinking of myself in that way.

Kennelly: Were there some incidents that come to mind when you were treated in a way, you know, hurtful to you because of your race or that really hurt?

Peddrew: You know nothing ever--I've tried to reflect on that, certainly recently I have. I have never really been able to pinpoint or to isolate any one incident or number of incidents that made me feel that way. When I grew up here in the South, you knew that you couldn't, or that you weren't supposed to sit in the front of the bus. You knew there was a special drinking fountain for you. You knew when you got on the train that you had to sit in a special place which was behind the coal car. You knew there were certain things that you weren't allowed to do, and practicality dictated that you didn't violate those things unless you wanted to incur the wrath of those who dictated those laws.

I stayed basically within the confines of where I knew I could go and where I couldn't go. It was only in high school when I felt that a teacher advised or instructed me or felt that I basically had enough going for me that I could apply to some of the institutions of higher learning that were categorized for whites only. That I could apply, and basically I had a chance to enter. She felt that I had the basic background to do that. I guess that she felt basically that, and I have had to think about this lately a lot--that there was something within me that would allow me to get beyond the normal confines and restrictions that were imposed legally and that I could eventually survive in an area or an atmosphere, environment where these laws still basically existed, but where there were people who could rise above the restrictions of that day and era of that time.

Kennelly: Was that Mrs. Hines?

Peddrew: Mrs. Hines was our class advisor at George P. Phoenix High School in Hampton. It was there for, as they called it, Negro students only. I don't recall the exact circumstances, but all I remember is that she came up to me at some point during my senior year and said to me that she was under the impression that there were certain schools within the Virginia white only environment that were positioned at that point to receive black students. That they had at least evidenced to some degree a position that would allow them to entertain the possibility of accepting black students. I wish that I could recall more of it. I can't right now.

All that I remember is that she said, "I think you are uniquely situated, that you have the ability to survive in that environment," and that eventually she expected that I would be received positively by some institution. So I applied to all the schools who were traditionally whites or schools in the confederacy--in Virginia that is. I didn't go outside of Virginia. I applied to all that I knew of, and I received only a positive, and at that time it wasn't a positive reception, but it was sort of a maybe an iffy situation from Virginia Tech, but that was the only school that replied with that in mind, that there was a possibility upon further examination and exploration that I might be considered as a possible entrant. I pursued that while pursuing other applications to other schools. I must say that I apparently had the grades and whatever else to get a positive response from every other school across the country. In fact, I had received a positive response to the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles.

At that time Virginia had set up a situation within the legislation or legislator assembly--the body that determines these things--that in order to keep black students out of white colleges here in Virginia that they would offer a scholarship to some other school...that provided you chose a course that was not given in the one school for blacks in Virginia, the state school which was Virginia State, but was given in a white school in Virginia. They would give you a scholarship provided you qualified. At that time I was really in pursuit of the West Coast. I liked the whole idea of southern California and their so-called lack of discrimination. So I had applied to the University of Southern California and was accepted.

The scholarship was approved by the Virginia legislature to attend the University of Southern California, and I was ready to go to USC when I received a telegram saying that I was accepted to Virginia Tech, but that was after two gentlemen from Virginia Tech had indicated a desire to interview me, and I corresponded back that they could, and they came down to my home in Hampton and personally interviewed me with my parents. They indicated at that time after the interview that they would give further consideration to my application and they would get back to me. After asking if I would take certain tests that were not asked of the white students, which I consented to do because I wasn't in a position, I didn't feel at that point that I needed to contest this whole thing. I never threatened to sue because I wasn't going to. I was happy to go to Los Angeles and attend Southern California University.

I said, "Fine, I'll take the tests, and you can make a decision," and I felt all the time that I wouldn't be accepted at Virginia Tech, so I made preparations to fly out to University of Southern California. Lo and behold, [laughter] I received a telegram the week before I was to fly out for freshman orientation at the University of Southern California. I received that telegram saying that I was accepted at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, as it was called then. Then I had to make a decision whether I would go out to the West Coast and attend school, or whether I would stay here in Virginia and give it a go at VPI, as I called it then.

My eventual decision, which was all mine, on my own, I decided that since my dad was financing my education and then you could understand from what I have said before that that's the way things were. He didn't allow me to go out and make the kind of money that would support an education, because he insisted that it be this way, and that was the way he was raised and brought up. I decided to stay at home despite the reception that I might receive that would be certainly less than acceptable as I viewed it because this was the southwest portion, the rural portion of Virginia. Not to say anything about rural folk, but because there's certainly many advanced folks with progressive thoughts, but generally you know that that is not the kind of situation that you would want, you would expect someone to prosper in who's a minority in an educational environment. I knew that I would not have it easy here, but I knew that it would be easier on my parents that I attended school locally, within state, as opposed to flying across the country and going to school there in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California.

That's basically--I made that decision. My dad was the one who pretty much wanted me to get into engineering, electrical engineering specifically. That was important because you could not have taken a course that was given at Virginia State, which was set up for minority students, at the time called Negroes. You could not expect to get a course at any university outside of the black educational institutions that was not offered. If it were offered in the black colleges, you could not get the scholarship I got to go to USC. I knew that I had to take something that wasn't in business, sociology, or some of the more common courses. I say common only to say that they were the kind that were regularly accepted or that you could see or expect to get in most colleges. I could not take that or try to excel in that area if I wanted to go to Virginia Tech, which was not originally in my plans, but I guess my dad sort of skewed me into electrical engineering because of friends that he had worked with who were electrical engineers and were very prosperous and were doing quite well. I accepted that, and that was the kind of thing that allowed me to get to Virginia Tech, or at least be considered as a student of Virginia Tech. I couldn't have, for instance, taken business and been accepted or been considered as a student, an entrant at Tech if I wanted a mere business degree because that was offered at Virginia State for blacks. I took electrical engineering or decided on that with the emphasis being provided primarily by my father. That was what allowed me to apply in that area, and that's where I went on from there after applying to be accepted as a candidate for electrical engineering school.

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