Pioneers of Progress

by Clara B. Cox (M.A. English '84)

On March 29, 2003, Irving L. Peddrew III and Charlie L. Yates will be guests of honor when Virginia Tech dedicates the Peddrew-Yates Residence Hall in honor of their achievements as the first African-American to enroll and the first African-American to graduate, respectively, from the university. While the occasion will be widely celebrated and their place in history lauded, what they endured to reach this point was, at times, difficult. Following is the story of each of these pioneers in the desegregation of historically white public schools in the South.

Irving L. Peddrew III: Alone

Imagine being the only black student amongst 3,321 white students and an all-white faculty and administration.

Imagine that the prevailing attitude of the day is that the color of your skin somehow makes you inferior.

Imagine that while you must go to class six days a week and participate in the corps of cadets with those 3,321 people, you cannot eat with them--or even sleep in any of their residence halls.

If you can imagine how alone you would feel, you might have an inkling of how Irving L. Peddrew III felt some 50 years ago when he walked into his first class at Virginia Tech, opening a door that no other member of his race had ever entered. While Irv Peddrew didn't know it at the time, he was also the first African American to enroll in an historically white land-grant school in the former Confederacy.

Peddrew was an honor student at his all-black high school in Hampton, Va., and his class sponsor suggested that he apply to white colleges in Virginia. The year was 1953, one year before the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown versus Board of Education precipitated Virginia's adoption of Massive Resistance to the desegregation of public schools.

Peddrew submitted his applications, but Virginia Polytechnic Institute (as Tech was known then) was the only college that responded. VPI notified him that it was interested and would get back in touch. "After a short period of time, they did get back to me and indicated that they would like to send two representatives at that time," he says.

Those college representatives--one was the director of admissions--journeyed to Hampton to meet Peddrew and his parents. "They questioned me about my background," he remembers, "trying, I guess, to decide what sort of attitude I had and what I was about to do, why I applied, and so forth. I basically told them that I was interested in a better education and had been advised that some schools were accepting black students in the state." A telegram a couple of weeks later notified him of his acceptance. On his father's advice, he had decided to study electrical engineering.

Peddrew knew he would live off-campus, and the day came when his parents drove him to Blacksburg. They remained with him throughout registration and returned with him to his lodgings at 306 E. Clay Street to say their goodbyes. "I remember, when my mother and father left and I saw the car drive away, how lonely I felt at that point. But I guess they knew I could make it. It wasn't like severing the umbilical cord or anything, but they are my parents and they're gone, and here I am at a school in the western part of the state that is rural," he says.

When classes started, he recalls, "no one ever got up and moved or anything, but I still felt alone. I was a cadet and I felt isolated."

Although he wasn't treated any better or any worse than other rats in the corps of cadets, he recalls an incident that he says "shocked me back into reality." He and several other cadets had been on guard duty and were marched into the dining hall for a meal. The next day, the school issued a memo forbidding any students who lived off campus from eating in the dining hall. "If I had had a tendency to drift off and think that I was being accepted, that kind of woke me up," he says. He was able, however, to make arrangements to use another cadet's room to dress for formations. "The guy whose room I changed in was really nice. I couldn't have picked a better guy."

Peddrew, who had played the saxophone and clarinet in high school, had his own jazz show on student-run radio station WUVT, and he found a "home" with the campus YMCA, which, in those days, advised students.

One incident that remains etched in his memory concerns Ring Dance. He was anxious to escort his girlfriend to the event, a highlight of college life. But rumors started flying that a couple of women's colleges would forbid their students from attending the dance if he were there. Peddrew decided not to go and only later learned that the rumors were false. He was bitterly disappointed.

At the end of his junior year, Peddrew was selected to represent VPI at the YMCA/YWCA-sponsored Students in Vocation project in California. His father didn't want him to go and wouldn't give him money for the trip, but a Y official who had befriended him loaned him the funds to journey west. He didn't return to Blacksburg.

Since then, Peddrew has served in the military, worked principally in the aerospace and fruit industries, and traveled throughout the world in his jobs. But his abiding love has always been music, and even in retirement, he sings often, using his stage name, Ronny Dru.

In thinking back, Irv Peddrew wonders if he is "too sensitive a person, probably, to have done what I did, but it's all behind me now, and judging from what happened that first year, from what the officials told me later on, their decision to accept the applications of [black students who followed] was based solely on my performance and acceptance as a student."

Charlie L. Yates: Focused

When Charlie L. Yates enrolled in 1954, he had one overriding goal: to get an education. His ability to focus on that goal carried him through four years, and in 1958, he became the first African- American to graduate from Virginia Tech.

Unlike his predecessor, who was the sole African-American student his freshman year, Yates was joined by two high school classmates, Lindsey Cherry and Floyd Wilson, during his first year at VPI. The three men lived and ate with Peddrew at the same house on Clay Street, where they paid $60 a month for room, board, and laundry service.

Yates followed a path to Tech similar to that of Peddrew. During his senior year in high school, his physics teacher learned that Peddrew had been admitted to VPI. "He felt that our high school had adequately prepared students to succeed at Virginia Tech, and he suggested that we apply," Yates recalls. After they did so, President Walter S. Newman and Director of Admissions Paul H. Farrier "visited with us in Norfolk at our high school and met with our parents, teachers, and principal. They sort of laid down the rules in that we would be daytime students--cadets, it may have been called--but we would not live on campus."

Yates found that eating off-campus actually made cadet life a little easier. "We didn't have to get up and march to breakfast in the morning. We didn't have to worry about lights out." And living off campus forced them to broaden their contacts with the African-American community. "As a result of that, we didn't feel particularly isolated," he says.

He describes his reception by the white students, who by then numbered 3,743, as good, even cordial. "I always felt like because we were such a minority that the students really went out of their way to be supportive. For instance, I had to participate in all of the parades, being a cadet, and I had a couple of buddies who always let me use their room to change and keep my rifle there. After freshman year, we went out and had our traditional beer party, and they put me up for the night in their room. It was really no problem for them."

After white students had a chance to get to know him, he recalls, one said to him, "You're really not a bad person. I like you. But you must recognize that when you graduate and leave here it will not be the same." That comment, he explains, was representative of the prevailing attitude of the day: "In accordance with the times, we would not be friends outside of our setting at Virginia Tech." Nonetheless, he became good friends with one of the white students, a friendship that has lasted for decades. And he has good memories of the way he was received by the students, who not only invited him into some of their organizations, but also elected him to be an officer in two of them.

Yates was a member of C squadron, which he represented in several drill competitions. He also marched with his squadron to football games, where one song he always heard the band play and other cadets sing was "Dixie." But at that time he didn't know the song or its implications. "I thought, Gee, this must be a song that I should know. Everybody knows it.' And I'd find myself trying to learn that song," he says, shaking his head.

In class, although Yates recalls hearing that "some faculty weren't particularly happy about having black students in their classes," he says he "always felt they were able to overcome that and treat us as they would any student."

Like Peddrew, Yates was discouraged from attending Ring Dance, not by the class officers who met and decided to invite the black juniors to go, but by President Newman himself. "We were called into the president's office and asked very strongly not to attend. For me it was not a big deal because I couldn't afford it anyway and I wasn't planning to attend, but that's sort of indicative of how the administration felt about our being involved in any social activities," he recalls.

With his focus on getting an education, Yates worked hard. When his final quarter rolled around, he needed four A's and one B to graduate with honors. He got the grades he needed, but unlike the white students who graduated with honors, he was not recognized at graduation. "That was a very disappointing occasion for me. But the president had made it clear that he did not wish to see any blacks graduate from Virginia Tech," he remembers, adding, "I guess that's what made the whole situation somewhat of a bitter one."

After graduation, Yates earned master's and Ph.D. degrees and worked for the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory from 1960-1979 as the lab's first black professional. He returned to his alma mater as an associate professor of mechanical engineering, leaving in 1983 to teach for four years in colleges in eastern Virginia. But he maintained contact with Virginia Tech by serving on the board of visitors. He returned to the school in 1987 as an associate professor of aerospace and ocean engineering, remaining until his retirement in 2000, when he was named professor emeritus.

During his years at Tech, Yates was told by a Ph.D. alumna that as a student she drew encouragement from his experiences. The woman told him, he recalls, that "she would go down in the mechanical engineering area and look at my picture. And she got some confidence from that. She decided that she was going to hang in there and do it."

Clara B. Cox M.A. '84 is director of publications and outreach communications.