William Peck, Black History Month, 2013
57 years ago, city man made history
- The following articles were a two-part series on William Peck that was published in the Cumberland Times-News in recognition of Black History Month, February 2013.
William Peck, one of Fort Hill’s first black graduates, helped break racial barriers.
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 the experience as if it were 57 years ago.
“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.”
February 17, 2013
City man’s ‘interesting’ undercover police work
One of Fort Hill’s first black graduates, Peck, took on Mafia as a covert agent
Michael A. Sawyers Cumberland Times-News
CUMBERLAND — In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan wrote a letter to William Peck, congratulating him on his “interesting career” as a police officer in the District of Columbia.
Beside Reagan’s letter in Peck’s living room on Cumberland’s West Side is another letter, a missive of thanks from the parents of John Hinckley.
“People will look at those two letters and say ‘That’s nice,’ not making the connection between them, the fact that one is from the president and the other from the parents of the man who shot him,” Peck said.
As an officer with the Metropolitan Police Department, Peck was assigned to protect Hinckley’s parents when they traveled from Colorado to Washington after their son shot Reagan in 1981.
“They had received a number of death threats,” Peck said.
Although Reagan called Peck’s police career interesting, he probably didn’t know the half of it. Actually, most people didn’t even know Peck, and that was intentional.
In 1956, Peck was one of the first black students to graduate from Fort Hill High School following court-ordered scholastic integration. After two years in the Army as a communications specialist, he followed his dream to become a police detective and was hired by the D.C. force.
Because he was unknown to criminals on the streets of the nation’s capital, he was immediately assigned to undercover work.
“They told me never to show up at the precinct. My paycheck was brought to me for more than a year. After my first undercover job was done and I showed up to get a paycheck, everybody came out to see who this guy was who they’d been paying for all that time.”
Peck was tossed immediately into an investigation of the numbers game, an illegal version of gambling similar to what is now legal via state lotteries.
“We had discovered that a branch store of a big-name company was a numbers location. The company officials cooperated with the department and I was instructed to apply for a job there in the automotive department and, of course, I was hired.”
Peck’s job was to be watchful, noting names and other details about those playing and running the illegal gambling. Eventually there were 15 search warrants and 50 arrests.
Peck figured he would then become a uniformed officer.
“But they told me I had a knack for undercover work.”
Things were about to get serious.
First came a stint undercover cleaning up the 800 block of 14th Street where prostitution, drugs and gambling were rampant.
Then came Operation High Roller. Peck was instructed to act as an organized crime operative. He became Billy P. and even the bad guys, the real bad guys, would learn to tread lightly around him.
At 6’1’’, 210 pounds, Peck was not the most intimidating physical specimen.
“It’s about the way you act,” Peck said.
At one training school, Peck was taught that the top-line criminals are not like the ones on television shows. The real-deal mobsters don’t smile and are deadly serious, with the emphasis on deadly, he was told.
“I would get in front of a mirror and practice an unflinching, cold stare,” Peck said. “Even after undercover was done for me, (wife) Roxanne would say our friends were scared of me. I guess I couldn’t come out of character.”
Peck’s role was to be with the Mafia, and his task was to buy stolen goods, lots of stolen goods in large quantities, taking notes and names for future arrests. That went on for 16 months.
“We weren’t dealing with people who stole five TVs. We were dealing with people who stole 50 to 100 TVs at a time,” Peck said.
Negotiations for the purchase of stolen goods lasted up to two weeks with individual amounts reaching as high as $30,000, and included firearms, furs, yard equipment, appliances, jewelry and artwork.
Because Coors beer was not sold in the East in those days, it was a valuable product.
“Somebody stole a Coors tractor-trailer full of beer out West and drove it back here for us to buy,” Peck said. On the way, one of the crooks died and they just stuffed him in the back with the beer. He was still there when Peck opened the door.
Peck and the other undercover officers rented a room at the Shoreham Americans Hotel. Hidden cameras were installed.
“We were supposed to be big spenders. We bought a drink and left a $20 tip. We flashed rolls of money. We let people know we were looking to buy. We drove new Lincolns with New Jersey license plates. Our guns were not police-issued. We made people scared of us. We had to, because showing that kind of money can make you a target for robbery or worse.”
Peck said it was set up that when he would be negotiating with a criminal to buy stolen goods, another undercover officer would walk in with some pictures.
“You know that problem we were having in Pennsylvania?” the officer would ask Peck. “We don’t have that problem any more,” at which point the officer would toss some photos of dead and dismembered people onto Peck’s desk, making sure the other person saw them.
“We would tell people that if they crossed us or sold us fake goods that we would kill them and their families.”
Peck said the way officers avoided using narcotics at frequent drug parties was by saying that the Mafia Don, their boss in New York, had lost a daughter to an overdose and told his employees that if they used drugs he would kill them.
“But we had to learn to drink without getting drunk,” Peck said, adding that just one time he went past the safe level. “I drank too much and couldn’t remember in which garage I had parked my car.”
Because Peck was turning down women being offered to him by criminals, he believes they were beginning to think he was either a “cop or a homosexual.”
“We fixed that,” Peck said. “We got an undercover police woman to accompany me and she spread the word that if any other women messed with me she would deal with them (in a not-so-nice way).”
Peck said that a nephew from Cumberland visited him and one night, and while alone in the apartment, answered a knock on the door.
“There were four masked men with guns looking for me, saying they wanted to kill me. He said I wasn’t there and they left. So did my nephew. Just packed his bags and went back to Cumberland. Later those guys were arrested and the officers told me they were likely trying to intimidate me or may have shot me to wound me and send a message.”
Peck said undercover officers learned to never take the same route to their residences.
“I was in so many undercover roles that if I saw somebody in a public place I’d have to roll through my mind to remember which character I was when I knew him.”
Peck said it was by the grace of God that he did not get into a fight or a shooting during his clandestine criminal investigations.
“One thing we learned in training is that if you are in your living room and need a gun it doesn’t do any good if that gun is in the bedroom. I had a gun in every room of the apartment. One time Roxanne offered to clean the apartment for me and she said every place she went she was finding a gun.”
Peck said Operation High Roller was a success, recovering more than $4 million in stolen goods, arresting more than 70 people and convicting more than 90 percent of them. Arrests also took place in distant cities such as Richmond, Va., Rochester, N.Y., and Fayetteville, N.C.
“It was psychologically stressful as well,” Peck said. “I was on guard constantly. I felt like I was pushing my luck to have worked so many cases and not gotten hurt.”
Later, in his visible police roles, Peck said his biggest, kid-like thrill was riding in many presidential motorcades. “From Kennedy on.”
Peck was also detailed to the U.S. State Department to work diplomatic security, protecting heads of state and ambassadors. He pulls out a medallion given him by Ferdinand Marcos, president of the Philippines. Peck retired in 1986.
Among the synonyms listed by Thesaurus.com for the word “interesting” are absorbing, arresting, captivating, compelling, intriguing, provocative and riveting. President Reagan was correct.
Michael A. Sawyers, Cumberland Times-News
Photograph by Steve Bittner.
Allegany County, Maryland
African Americans, History; Allegany County (Md.), History.
Allegany County (Md.), 1890-2008