First black student in white school reflects on family, life
William Peck, one of three students who became the first blacks to attend a Cumberland, Md. white school following a court order in 1955, recalls following his mother's orders: Don't fight back, no matter what the opponents of integration did or said to him as he was going to school.
Steve Bittner/Cumberland Times-News/AP
(Editor's note: This article was originally incorrectly attributed to the Associated Press. Michael A. Sawyer of The Times-News of Cumberland reported it; the AP distributed it.)
William Peck received his first 11 years of local education at Carver School and his final one at Fort Hill High School where he and two other students became the first blacks to graduate following court-ordered scholastic integration in 1956.
Peck, now 74 and once again a Cumberland resident, remembers how the experience affected his family.
"My family was very apprehensive," Peck said. "There had been a lot on TV about violence involved with school integration."
A UPI story in the Sept. 2, 1955, Cumberland Evening Times about Maryland school integration included this paragraph: "In Allegany County, where there are only about 270 Negro school children, representing but 1.7 percent of the total enrollment, integration is expected to proceed in conformance with the Supreme Court decision. A total of 54 Negro children have indicated they will attend previously white schools."
Peck, the youngest child in a family of three girls and two boys, said he followed his mother's instructions.
"She said that no matter what was said to me or done to me that I was not to fight back. That turned out to be difficult, but I did it. She engrained it in me."
Peck's mother told him that if he fought back his actions would be exploited and he would be the one made to look bad. People would say integration wasn't working.
"I grew up on Central Avenue and had a lot of white friends. We grew up together, played together, but we didn't go to school together."
Peck said the African-American students walked to the Carver School on Frederick Street.
"The school buses would pick up the white kids and when they went by they would holler at us."
Peck said when he attended Fort Hill that several of the white students were very nice and treated him as a friend.
"There were times, though, when someone would use the N-word loud enough so I could hear it or say that black people didn't take baths or would bring lice to school. And I thought, 'Come smell me, I'm clean.' "
Peck said those ugly comments reflected the social thinking of the time.
"The only movie theater we could go to was the Maryland, but we had to go down a back alley and enter near the stage and then climb up to the projector area to watch the show."
"Black people could buy clothes and shoes in stores on Baltimore Street, but they couldn't try them on and put them back because the store owners said white people wouldn't buy them."
Peck said he believes that by staying calm and talking with white students at Fort Hill that he helped break down social barriers with some individuals.
His first job after high school was at the Manhattan clothing store on Baltimore Street where he washed windows.
"At Christmas time, though, I would work inside behind the counter as a cashier," he said.
Peck said the store's owners, the Pariser brothers, taught him the importance of dressing well and he has continued that throughout his life.
"It helps people to respect you and what you say."
Peck enlisted in the Army.
"We were sent on a bus to Fort Jackson in South Carolina for basic training. When the bus would stop for food, we couldn't go inside the restaurant so our food was brought out to us. If there was a restaurant that allowed us to enter, we had to go to the back and were told not to talk with the white customers."
Peck became a communications officer, including a stint in Germany.
"I was a Spec 5 (specialist 5, same as sergeant) and I had a white private as my driver. We would travel to a unit where I was supposed to help with their communications and they would come out and greet the private, thinking he was the communications specialist."
At one Army school Peck attended, he felt that an instructor was being especially hard on him, the only black.
"I asked to speak with him after class and told him my concerns. He said all the other white soldiers would move on to their new jobs, but because I was black, more would be expected of me and he wanted me to be better prepared."
Peck had always wanted to be a police officer, a detective. After being discharged from the Army, he made his move.
"I took the civil service test for the Cumberland Police Department and finished with the highest score," he said.
"Then I watched a bunch of people with lesser scores get hired and it was clear to me that I could die and still be at the top of the list, but not be hired."
Following an application to the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., Peck was soon hired (see tomorrow's Times-News for his fascinating account of his undercover work in the District of Columbia).
"Later on, when Bobby Dick was police chief in Cumberland, he reached out to hire black officers. I appreciated that."
Peck said he is proud of his post-retirement involvement with the Young Marines program.
"We would have 500 to 600 Young Marines from around the East come to Cresaptown for maneuvers."
He is a member of McKenzie United Methodist Church. He likes to point out the certificate on his wall from Gov. Martin O'Malley honoring him on his 70th birthday and mentioning his career achievements.
During an interview Thursday in the living room of his West Side home — O'Malley's certificate on one wall, a family portrait on another — Peck reflected on his life and career that carried him across a historical social bridge.
"I have seen one of the two things I hoped for in my lifetime," Peck said. "A black president of the United States. The other is a black firefighter riding on a Cumberland Fire Department truck."