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Closet Archives

VCU Library's newest researcher is piecing together Richmond's other history.


Upon entering Thalhimers, some students headed to the men's-only balcony, while others climbed to the store's posh restaurant, "The Richmond Room," in front of the escalators on a retail floor. A crowd of white people encircled the students, taunting them. The students from VUU stood peacefully, no one uttering a word.

"They had an unbelievable presence of quietude," Peeples recalls of the students. "They didn't respond to anger." Standing nearby were a fireman and some plainclothes cops wearing white socks with short pants legs — their "uniform," Peeples says.

In the fray, Peeples, who is white, stepped over the metaphorical line to join the blacks, leaving his girlfriend and other white friends behind. The cops grabbed Peeples' athletic arms and dragged his limp body, dropping him at the escalator, where he cut himself on the jagged metal while coasting down three flights. He says the police shoved him out to Sixth Street, yelling "Don't you ever come back here!"

"He was a strange bird for the day," says Alex Lorch, the community outreach archivist for Virginia Commonwealth University's special collections library. "He was one of the few white people who stood up for [black people's] rights."

On the fourth floor of the James Branch Cabell Library, Lorch, 31, is leading a project called "Archives of the New Dominion." The project aims to collect and preserve the 20th- and 21st-century cultural history of Richmond's blacks, Hispanics, homosexuals and women's activists — basically everyone but "dead white men," says Curtis Lyons, head of the special collections and archives at VCU. Adds Lorch, "It's sad to say that these four groups are woefully underrepresented."

Lorch is gathering historical documents from such groups as the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which started the nation's first bilingual business center in 2003.

In many instances, these minority groups worked with the area's poor and homeless, and organized themselves politically, but failed to document their own vibrant history. "If we don't start collecting the materials now, they'll be lost," Lyons says.

So the department sent Lorch to the streets to "beat the bushes for these papers," he says. One of those collections belongs to Peeples, who's now 70. "I kept absolutely everything," he says.

Along with the newspaper clippings, Peeples gleaned notes and memoirs from the 1960s as he "became a spy for desegregation — everything from formal investigation to outright snooping." As a former VCU professor of medical behavioral science, Peeples takes pride in his meticulous archiving of mementos from Richmond's civil-rights movement. "I was running out of rooms," he says. "So I'm damned grateful. It's dazzling that people want to save stuff."

Central Virginia is rife with unsung heroes from minority movements, Lorch says. For example, there's the 35-year-old Fan Free Clinic. Founded to support college women who otherwise couldn't get birth control and drug-abuse therapy, it was the first free clinic in Virginia. It grew from about the size of a closet to its current space with six exam rooms on North Thompson Street. It's also one of 47 free clinics across the state.

The free clinic piqued Lorch's interest because of its history in Richmond, especially its significance during the spread of HIV in the early '80s. Lorch started digging into a downstairs closet at the clinic for scrapbooks, photos and newspaper clips. If it weren't for this new ambitious archiving, says the clinic's director of development, Cat Hulbert, "people wouldn't have the opportunity to see the history that we have now. Things could've stayed in that closet."

Then there's Edward Meeks Gregory, an Episcopal priest who was reverentially nicknamed "Pope." Lorch started digging into the vestry minutes back to 1866 from St. Mark's Episcopal Church and discovered his story. "He's really become one of my heroes," Lorch says. Glossy photos of Gregory adorn the archive collection, showing him with his white beard, eye glasses perched atop his bald head, leaning against road signs for 22nd and X streets, smoking a cigarette in his clerical collar and frock.

During the segregation crisis post-Brown v. Board of Education at Prince Edward County's schools, Gregory raised money for black students to attend private schools from 1959 to 1964. In 1979, while serving on Richmond's Human Relations Commission, Gregory became a big proponent, albeit unsuccessfully, of adding sexual orientation to the city code's nondiscrimination policies. Also in the late 1970s, at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Church Hill, Gregory presided over a ceremonial "wedding" for two men.

With a grant from the National Archives, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission has given Lurch three years to compile his archive that bucks the tradition of merely collecting "the documents of the wealthy and powerful," Lyons says.

"It was spine-tingling when Alex came," Peeples says. "He's the kind of guy you want to Xerox so we'll have two of 'em."

Most groups, such as the Richmond Triangle Players, Art 180 and Richmond's chapter of NOW are eager to work with Lorch. But he says he's still waiting for the gay lobby Equality Virginia to start listening to him and hand over some documents, as he continues beating the bushes, pulling history out of the closet, and fighting to preserve Richmond's past. "The whole thing is a wild adventure," he says. S

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