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.
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Peck said the store's owners, the Pariser brothers, taught him the importance of dressing well and he has continued that throughout his life.Skip to next paragraph
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"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."