History

Remembering Irving L. Peddrew III, Virginia Tech’s first Black student forced to live and eat off-campus

Irving L. Peddrew III was the first Black student admitted to Virginia Tech (VT). According to the institution, he passed away on May 11 at the age of 88.

Peddrew has been dubbed a trailblazer for black students for his role in integrating Virginia Tech’s classes in 1953. He was the first Black student to be admitted to a traditionally white, four-year public university in any of the 11 former Confederate states.

Peddrew went to George P. Phenix High School in Hampton, where he played saxophone and clarinet. His family valued education, and both his parents attended Hampton University.

Peddrew considered attending the University of Southern California as he was looking for his next educational move. However, a teacher urged him to apply to many Virginia colleges that had never admitted Black pupils. After filling out multiple applications, Virginia Tech was the only institution to accept him.

In his first year at the university, the pioneer was the only Black person among 3,322 students after arriving in the town of Blacksburg, more than six months before the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in the famous Brown v. Board of Education case.

Peddrew was made to live and eat off campus even though he was enrolled at the institution. In the end, he left the school after three years due to social pressure. He said that unproven rumors circulated that if he attended the “Ring Dance,” an event celebrating rising seniors, local women’s colleges would refuse to allow their pupils to participate.

“I thought I would be a part of the student body all around,” Peddrew said in 2020, per WFXRTV. “I didn’t know about all the restrictions. But since I was there, I said, ‘Well, let’s make the best of it.’”

His academic performance and character had an impact on the Hokie community. Peddrew talked about both his good and terrible experiences at Virginia Tech in several interviews. He remembered school leaders telling him, “Because of my performance and the way I carried myself during my first year, my freshman year, they were convinced that it didn’t necessarily have to be a problem accepting more Black students.”

After leaving Virginia Tech, he continued his education at the University of Southern California (USC). Eventually, Peddrew moved back to Hampton and worked at the Newport News Shipyard and Hampton University. He retired in 1994.

Virginia Tech President Tim Sands said, “Mr. Peddrew endured unfair and oppressive treatment with dignity and strength, hoping to make a difference for those who would follow him—and he did. It was an honor to know him and present him with the Virginia Tech degree he earned. He will be remembered as a leader among those who laid the foundation for our growth as a diverse and inclusive institution.”

In 2016, Sands granted a bachelor’s degree in engineering to Peddrew during the commencement ceremony, and he became the ninth person to earn an honorary degree from Virginia Tech. In honor of his contributions, Peddrew-Yates Residence Hall was named after Peddrew and Charlie L. Yates, the first Black graduate at Virginia Tech in 1958.

Remarkably, years later, Peddrew discovered that he had been selected as the class ring namesake by the VT class of 2023.

Peddrew said when the honor was announced, “I wasn’t fully a student. I wasn’t fully accepted, and now I am. I am. I really feel part of the university, and I can say, ‘That I May Serve.’”

A 1995 graduate and current rector of the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, Ed Baine, referred to Peddrew as an inspiration to the current generation of Hokies.

He said, “It takes a special person to be a pioneer. I’m grateful to Irving Peddrew who opened the door for thousands of Black students who followed at Virginia Tech. As a student, he chose to leave after three years, but he came back to Virginia Tech, time-after-time, later in life, to help connect our community. He was a dear member of the Hokie family, and we extend our condolences to his family. We will all miss him.”

Dollita Okine

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