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

Irving Linwood Peddrew, III, and Charlie Yates  at sign for Peddrew-Yates Residence Hall
Irving Linwood Peddrew, III (right) and Charlie Yates at Peddrew-Yates Residence Hall
Initially known as New Residence Hall West, Peddrew-Yates Hall was built in 1998. It was renamed and dedicated in 2003.

Part 3

Tamara Kennelly: When you were in school, was the Confederate flag a lot in evidence?

Irving LInwood Peddrew, III: [Laughter] Was it ever, and they used to play "Dixie."

[End of tape A1 side 2]

[Begin tape A2 side 3]

Peddrew: They used to play "Dixie," and I refused to stand along with a number of northern students who were here. It wasn't treated as something insidious. It wasn't. They would all--the southern students who by far populated the Corps of Cadets--would all try to pick us up, myself and the other northern students that were here, because I was the only black student at the time, but they picked me up. I never really felt, I just knew that I couldn't stand and pay homage to something that looked upon me as something that I wasn't. The flag was very prominent always and the playing of "Dixie" during the football games.

Kennelly: What were they grabbing your arm to try to make you to stand up?

Peddrew: Oh, I mean not only my arm but picking, I mean literally picking me up--my body to try and make me stand up. It wasn't done insidiously with harm meant to me as an individual, but they--guys all seemed to think that I, being a southerner, that I should rise and salute "Dixie" when it was played during the football games, and I never did, as well as the northern students who were in the Corps of Cadets and attending VPI at that time, who wouldn't stand when they were doing that. I never did. I never did stand, and the flag was very, the Confederate flag was very prominently displayed along with the playing of "Dixie" during the football games and the Corps trips that we took to football games.

Kennelly: What company were you in?

Peddrew: I don't even recall. [Laughter] I've been asked that before, and I can't recall. I couldn't begin to remember what company I was in. [Note: Mr. Peddrew was in E Company] I just remember that I was there for company meetings and formations et cetera, but I didn't have to go through all of what the campus students, the resident students, were subjected to. I didn't have to make all those formations, and when my classes were over, I went home, and I didn't have to stand any of the formations at night or the formations in the morning that they had to. I wasn't subjected to that extent of the military theme that's a part, that's an intricate part of the Corps of Cadets. Then if you were physically able and you hadn't served prior service with the armed forces, you had to be a member of the Corps of Cadets. That was the law, and so I had to.

They made an allowance for me living off campus. Normally you couldn't be in the Corps of Cadets and live off campus. Not in your first year, not in your second year. They made that allowance for me to keep me off of the campus, and I had to live, I had to be able--the state law was that I had to be a part of the Corps of Cadets. At that time I just had to be, but you weren't allowed to normally live unless, I think at that time, and I don't remember all of the rules specifically, but if you were married, you were allowed to live off campus with your wife. As a single student coming in, if you were physically qualified and didn't have prior military service, you had to be a part of the Corps of Cadets. You had to live on campus. Except, they made allowances for me like they made allowances that I couldn't go into the cafeteria or other things, or they tried to discourage me from the Ring Dance, which they were successful in doing.

There were some students that that didn't bother. There were others that it bothered, and I don't recall when the first black student attended the Ring Dance, but there was one year eventually when they did, just like I know right now it's great that maybe, maybe that I integrated the campus fifty years ago, or the university fifty years ago, but I know by now certainly that they would be integrated. I mean I happened to be out front and a little forward in the thinking of a lot of folks, and I did it in 1953, but by now--we're talking about the twenty-first century--certainly there would have been integration here and all. It happened then, and Tech was a part of it then.

It was a little ugly for me, but certainly not as ugly as it could have been. Not nearly as ugly as it could have been as other students experienced in predominantly all-white universities at the time. No one ever took a shot at me. No one ever defiled the home, the place where I was staying, and no one shouted at me when I was walking through town to school, and that's got to say something about the civility of this environment that that didn't happen. There's also that insidious undercurrent, the tone, that as an individual I had to face and go through. Because I was the type of person that I was. If I were a different type of person, less sensitive, with that strong parental guidance and that support, maybe it would have worked out that I could have gone through the whole four years and done my thing and graduated, but it wasn't that way. It didn't work out that way, because I wasn't really all that type of person.

Although it took that kind of a person to endure for four years maybe, maybe possibly it took the kind of person, maybe, that I was to break through and to establish a level of openness, not the kind of openness that there should have been, but a level of openness that allowed the subsequent events and entrance of persons who came in after me to go through and eventually someone to some through with a degree and for there eventually to be not a big thing when a black graduated. That's--I'd like to see it get to a point where there's no Department of Multicultural Affairs, and I don't say that, I say that with all respect to Ben Dixon who's done a wonderful job here, but I would like to see it grow and develop and evolve to the point where we don't need to have separate thinking and separate groups and have to have a black this and the other this. I'd like to see that, and that's--I might have been ahead of my time, but in '53 that's what I was here for.

I say that in reflecting on it, in retrospect, because I couldn't have known or foreseen all of the things that have happened subsequently. I couldn't at that point. It was too harsh. It was too cold. It was too cut and dried. It was you here and them there, and it wasn't that. But I can see in retrospect in my mind that that's what I was shooting for, that's what I was hoping for, and that's what I hope, eventually, although I couldn't see it and articulate it then, that's in essence what I had hoped would eventually have happened.

Although, there's a Department of Multicultural Affairs, and I thank Tech for having that because maybe in the logical sequence of things that was necessary. I just hope that eventually we can get to the point where we won't need that, where that isn't a part of the university experience. I'd like to see every student come in here accepted as an individual, and there not be a need for a department that addresses the individual needs or the collective needs, for that matter, of a particular group of students, particularly a group of students with a particular ethnic background. I would like to see that happen. I am sure that we will reach that like we have come this far from 1953 when I was accepted.

You've got to have some people out there. You've always got to have that. You can't sit and operate on the premise of what the majority of people won't accept because if we had a referendum on the end slavery, do you think we would have gotten rid of slavery? Absolutely not, it was too economically feasible. There were too many people profiting from that. Do you think if it were submitted as a referendum to the people in 1861, '62, or so do you think we would have been able to get rid of it? Absolutely not. They wouldn't have voted it out, but as in any case, in any situation, it takes forward thinking visionary people who can see beyond the harassment of involvement and all of the so-called problems that these situations generate because there are always problems.

You try to put two people together who are convinced that separately that they are the only things that are right and good for the world because what happens if one happens to be black and another one happens to be white? They would never come together if they were totally staunched in their own ideas or their own self-worth, and what they were about. You can't have that group and this group, but that's not what this is about. It's about people who can see beyond the separateness, the individualness of these particular ethnic groups or whatever groups that they constitute, and the folks saying to themselves, this is something that needs to happen. Whether it is an underground railway during the slavery, or whatever, there need to be people who can step forward and say, "That's not the way it should be. That's the way it is, but we don't accept that." You need people that run the railway, the people who get them out, because you need the people that think that way and are forward thinking and visionary enough to say, "Hey, this is the way it is, but it darn sure isn't the way it ought to be, the way it should be," and you've got to have that.

I wasn't all that visionary because I didn't think that far ahead, I was just thinking right now. I was thinking in '53 that I shouldn't have been a second-class citizen. I shouldn't have had to endure the pain of a second-class citizen. I shouldn't. Why? I didn't deserve it. I had those same values as those who were decreeing that I should be a second-class citizen. We always need those sort of people, those kind of people, who think they are Henry David Thoreau. The people who say, "Hey, this isn't right, and we shouldn't subject our people to this, and whatever it takes we are going to stand up front." The freedom riders, they are the people that should be commended, not so much me because I didn't endure the all of the torture and the pain of those folks. They were so beautiful. We have got to have people who could say, "What we're doing and what's happening now is not where we ought to be going." We've got to look beyond that and see that these, the kind of things that we are enduring now we are subjecting certain people of our society to shouldn't be happening. That's what, that's what we need, and that's what ought to be happening, and that's what ought to be going on now. Basically, that is what is happening now.

We've got people now who are speaking out whether it's in reference to a possible future war involving a country, or whether it is possibly someone entering a club or setting where they weren't allowed a few years ago. Whatever, there ought to be people out there who say, who have a conscience, and who are saying, "I'm going to enact my conscience in some way, and I am going to step forward and be counted. I am going to stand."

The measure of a man is not where he stands in comfort and convenience but where he stands in conflict and controversy. It is so easy to get up and be one of the guys if everything is going well and all. That's not what it is all about. You've got to stand up and be counted. You've got to factor in another thing...there, but for the grace of God go I.

You know, I've often thought about some of the whites who, some of the guys that came to me and said, "You know, Irv, I'd like to take you home, and my parents would love to have you as a visitor, but it's the neighbors." Do you know how many times I've heard that? I can't...

Kennelly: Your fellow students here?

Peddrew: Yeah, fellow students here. Like the guys that wanted me as a roommate. I mean they stepped out, or the guys that allowed me to change in their rooms. They didn't have to do that either. You know there's always a segment of our society of people who are not content to go along with the crowd, who see things as they should be seen not as the way they are. There will be those forward thinking visionary types who are going to do that. Those are the people we ought to look to for guidance and direction. Not the ones that group together and seek the safety and comfort of the average or the so-called majority and this kind of thing. It is the people who stand out and say--we always look, and look back at them and regard them as our real heroes. People who stood up and were able to say, "What we are doing is not right. Even if I can't change it, I've got to let you know that that's the way I feel." They have an impact, and eventually that will occur.

This life, when I integrated things and think it through, I never thought, well not that I never thought, I never thought of it, I guess, that somehow that I would be honored in some future time. I never thought that I could come back here and walk, and go into any restaurant on Main Street. It wasn't happening. I never thought that the campus, the theater that was off campus...

Kennelly: The Lyric?

Peddrew: Yeah, we had an integration one day out of the time that I was here, and they showed Cry the Beloved Country. It was during brotherhood week that they showed it, and we, the blacks mainly, we were allowed to sit downstairs. Any other time that--I mean I was in cadet uniform or whatever I was in--I had to march up to the top and sit up in the balcony with all the blacks.

There always have to be people who can think and see beyond that. We call them crazies now sometimes, but they're all visionary. They are people who can see beyond the extent of our current situation, see that what we are doing is not right and good. It's not valuable, and it's not what it ought to be. Those are the people that are going to lead us, hopefully, into a different world. They're the folks who are at the forefront of change and who say, this is what's happening, but this is not what should be happening. They're the folks that should be lauded and applauded. So often they are labeled as the strange one or the ones who are out front or the crazies or whatever. A lot of times, they are the very people who ought to be leading our movements, who ought to be looking at what we are doing and ought to be out front saying, "Hey, guys, follow me, this is where we need to be, not where we are right now, but this is what needs to happen."

If you could visualize totally what I experienced in '53 and see what's happening now, you could see what I'm saying. It would be so obvious. It would be so apparent, so evident, but it's hard unless I could convey, and it's difficult. I talked to black students who can't imagine what I experienced in '53. I mean they have no way, but they should be made aware of that history. Who was it that said, "Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it?" That is so true and so beautiful.

Kennelly: Not just black students...

Peddrew: Yeah, oh absolutely. Oh yeah. I didn't mean to limit it to the black students, but they should have a greater, black students should have a greater appreciation of what has gone before. They think that it is so easy now, and they complain about some of the trivial things. I remember a couple a few years ago the students at Duke University asking for separate water fountains, excuse me? I know what they are saying. I know where they're heading. I know what they're doing. They were, they're trying to compensate, and overly so, for all those years of segregation and demeaning and being put down. But I couldn't, but at first when at first I saw it, and they were interviewing some of the black students that were asking for separate water fountains, I'm thinking, oh my goodness. We were forced to, at one time, have separate, but it's their pride now is building up to the point where they are trying to say, "IÕm better than you. I do deserve a separate water fountain." I understand where they are coming from. I couldn't have said that, and I couldn't have been a part of that movement. That was only a few years ago. IÕm talking about '53.

If you look back, and you've got to see all of these things in perspective, you view what has happened, how far we have come. You'd say, we have come a long way, but we have a long way to go. That's what I see now. I see here because of some of the problems now on the campus that I was informed of before I agreed to be a part of the fiftieth year celebration. I was told that there was a possibility of--I talked to certain people. Some people assured me that there were no problems here. That's totally unrealistic. You can't convince me that there are no problems.

What you need to say is that you don't think that they're substantial enough to require the attention that these folks are asking for. I went beyond that, and I said, "My dad used to have a little expression. He used to say that there's too much smoke, there's got to be a little fire." That was to me, you've got all of these folks saying something, there's got to be something beneath it. There's got to be some underpinning that the folks that are crying out for some attention and need. That's before I agreed to come here and be a part of this, these ceremonies. I asked simply that these problems be aired and addressed. Not that they all be resolved, because I wasn't convinced that there was totally with all that much credibility. I just didn't know because I wasn't aware of all of the problems. I wasn't aware of the history of the problems and the people who were complaining. I just asked, simply, "Just an honest answer. Could you open the channels of communication and address some of these problems? Just hear them out."

A lot of times that's all that's really necessary, that they be heard. People ought to know that they matter, and that they count. Again, you are going to have some people who sit back and say, "Well, my problem is that I am black, and you just don't want to accept me." Well that's not always true. Sometimes it is, but it's not always true. What you need to do is to have some sort of machinery in place that allows these kinds of grievances or concerns to be addressed. You need to have that. Whether they are real or imagined, somebody needs to deal with people. If they aren't real or not creditable, they need to be told that. You need to be showing why they are not, but you don't need to walk around with your fingers in your ears pretending they are not being said. That's the terrible part.

You need to open up some channels of communication, and that's all I said initially when I talked to the folks here at Tech. I said, "Please allow these people to be heard. I don't know where the problem is because I haven't researched it or anything. I've been brought in at the end of this thing, so I don't know all this. I don't have the perspective that allows me to adequately address the problems or to hear them, or to know if they are real or imagined or whatever. You can't tell anybody whether they are real or imagined, or whether they are creditable or not if you don't hear them. If you don't allow them, allow these folks to address these problems, to open up a channel of communication. That's what I would like to see."

There is always going to be some sort of differences, real or imagined. There are going to be problems, real or imagined, because we are all different, and God bless the differences. I hate to see us all one homogenous [Laughter] and all look like each other. Seriously, we need to allow the diversity that exists to be expressed, to be open, to be allowed. We need that. That's the beauty of this country, is our diversity. It's not a problem. It's a big plus. It's not a negative. It's a huge plus, and the more cultural differences and diversities that we address and allow, the better off we are. You're not going to have a good complete society with the understanding that we are all there and we are all a part of it unless you allow these diversities to be expressed.

When I went to this project Students in Vocation back in 1956, the beauty of it was we had people from all over the world, male and female, from all over the country, from the South and the North and the West, and we could all sit and talk. We could all express our views, and we had people in control of that who were really not in control, can you understand that? They allowed us to be ourselves, but not to channel the thinking of any individual, but to allow us to all be our individual selves. This was the thinking that promoted the idea that I should stay out there and finish my education. We had all different ethnic backgrounds, people from all parts of the world, all parts of the continental U.S. We were functioning; we were having a fine beautiful time in that setting. That is what you need globally. Not even restricted to the U.S., but globally we need to understand that we all have problems, we all have wants, desires, we all have aspirations. It's not restricted to any. No one has a corner of the market. No one has a corner on the blues. I'm sorry. I'll get a lot of [Laughter] negative vibes from that. No one has a corner on the market of anything, and we should each be allowed to seek our level of accomplishment, and be allowed to go anywhere our mind and thoughts and energies and efforts can take us, in spite of differences, culture, ethnic, or whatever. That should never be brought to play, in that situation.

It should never come up except to express the fact that that's a difference. Well, it's not bad, but you're different. It's not bad that you look different or think differently than I do. There's nothing wrong with that. A lot of times we put down people who don't think like we do. I think I've got the answer to the world [Laugher]. That's not arrogance. That's just a matter that I thought through a lot of situations, but I can't put down the people that don't think like I do. You know, eventually they have changed my mind about a lot of things that I thought because I allow myself to reexamine what I think, all the time.

If I am so good, so sharp, and I am so visionary, why shouldn't I allow my thoughts to be challenged? Why shouldn't I allow you to think differently? If I am so good and so righteous, why shouldn't I? Why shouldn't I consider what you think? What I think is that--I think basically as--I think a person should, but I'm not always right with that because I have changed my mind on situations. I have. That's only because I have allowed myself to be open enough to accept other inputs. You've got to do that, but with people who are in charge of this, or in charge of different groups or this department or this university or that university, or you've got to have people in those positions who allow the differences. You can't put down the thoughts and differences of other people. Even because they are different from the masses, or the so-called average. You've got to allow those things to be voiced, and you've got to allow yourself the opportunity to examine them in light of your own opinions.

Whoever said that they've done all the right things in all the situations of the world? They've got to be idiots. I mean you don't, they don't exist. What we've got to do is to allow ourselves to understand, to hear, to analyze, to critique, the opinions and ideas of others. If we are so right, so right on, to think we know what we are doing is absolutely the right thing. Why can't you allow yourself to be challenged? I think so much of my ideas that I never ever think that they should be challenged. I welcome the challenge. Those are the ways that I have learned. The challenges that I have accepted, those are the things that have changed my mind. You can't, no one has all the experiences in the world, and no person who understands all of the problems who knows all, sees all. That individual doesn't exist. Until you have allowed yourself to entertain the ideas and difference, the ideas of all kinds of differences whether they be ethnic or cultural or social or whatever. Until you have allowed those ideas to be challenged and allow yourself to think through these situations and to constantly allow yourself to examine and reexamine your own ideas, you're not really fulfilling, to me, this is my own idea, you are not fulfilling your mission. I think your mission, anyone's mission on earth ought to be to make this a better place for us to live. How could you ever expect to ever change, or to ever have situations evolve unless you express, unless you look at different situations, different ideas, different philosophies, different cultures?

I learned so much traveling as a businessman in, when I worked out of San Francisco for Castle & Cooke, and when I worked out of LA for Del Monte Corporation. I got a chance to travel all over the world and meet different people, to work with different cultures and languages. You know what it all did? It all served to support what I always thought, even when I was a student here at Tech. You've got to open up, and you can't go with some predisposed pattern of thinking, some predisposed idea about what everybody else should do. How could I sit here and dictate to you what you ought to be doing?

[End of interview. Tape ran out while Mr. Peddrew was speaking.]

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