Mary Parkman Peabody


Some years ago I was listening to the Albany Public Radio station, and they were discussing a biography of some historic notable in Albany’s history and speculating about whether he was a racist, and one of the panelists suggested that, no, he wasn’t a racist, he just attended ‘racist institutions’ like Groton School.

I pulled over and found a phone and called them and explained that the Reverend Jack Crocker, as headmaster of Groton, had integrated the school in the 1940s and had marched with Martin Luther King. “Are you a Groton graduate?” they asked. “No,” I said. “I was expelled.”

Although I am fond of Groton now and grateful for the education I got there, I wasn’t always, but I have always been an enormous fan of Jack and Mary Crocker and I wasn’t going to stand by and hear them associated with racism.

Then last year I sent my friend Walter (a Groton classmate) some writings by Harry Golden. Walter is serving a prison sentence which he did nothing to deserve, and Harry Golden also served time in prison and went on to become a successful journalist, a best-selling author, and a friend of Dr. Martin Luther King. He is mentioned by name in King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail — what an honor!

Well Walter thanked me for writings, and then mentioned that Golden had given a speech at Groton when we were there back in the 60s. I didn’t remember that, but Walter’s memory is a lot better than mine, so I called the school to ask if anyone remembered Golden’s visit.

We still haven’t settled that question, but a few months later I received my copy of the Groton School Quarterly, and the cover story was about Dr. King’s visit to Groton. I don’t know if my query had anything to do with this, but I kind of hope so.

The story prompted several letters in the subsequent edition of the Quarterly, one from my pal Tom, another Groton classmate and a Crocker grandson, and one from Malcolm Peabody, the grandson of Endicott Peabody, who founded the school and served as headmaster for many years. He was also a friend of Wyatt Earp, having served as a minister in Tombstone, Arizona in the 1880s, and he performed the marriage ceremony for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Malcolm Peabody was writing about another hero of the Civil Rights Movement, his mother, Mary Parkman Peabody. In 1964 Dr. King and his associates were leading a series of demontrations to integrate public facilities in St. Augustine, Florida. Young black demonstators were being brutally beaten, but the national press, having covered major demonstrations in Birmingham and elsewhere, was taking what Malcolm calls “a ho-hum attitude.”

The call went out for volunteers to come from around the country to get arrested, especially elderly volunteers, because of St. Augustine’s popularity as a retirement destination.

The Rev. James Breeden, head of the Boston Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference spoke to Mrs. Peabody at one of their meetings. She was then 72, the wife of an Episcopalian bishop and the mother of Massachusetts Governor Endicott (Chub) Peabody.

“Mrs. Peabody,” Breeden said, “we need elderly volunteers to help with the demonstration in St. Augustine. Do you know of anyone who might volunteer?”

Her reply is a classic: “Would I do?”

She talked it over with her son the governor, because she didn’t want to hurt his chances for reelection. I love Boston and Massachusetts, but I won’t deny how racist public attitudes in the Commonwealth were back then.

Governor Peabody knew it would (and did) hurt his chances, but to his credit he said, “If you think it is right, you must do it.”

Mrs. Peabody went to St. Augustine and joined a mixed-race party at the Ponce de Leon Motor Lodge on March 31, 1964. When she refused to leave, she was arrested, leading, of course, to banner headlines all over the country.

Malcolm Peabody reports, “The next day Chub got a call from Governor C. Farris Bryant of Florida.

‘Governor Peabody, we have your mother down here.’

‘I know that, Governor,’ Chub replied.

‘She’s in jail.’

‘I know that, too, Governor.’

‘Well, will you come and get her?’

“Needless to say,” Malcolm reports, “He did not; Mother was freed in three days, but the damage had been done.”

“The press kept St. Augustine in the headlines, and the pressure was indeed effective in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act.”

Mrs. Peabody was a hero, but her son was subsequently defeated by another candidate in his own party’s primary.