As the daughter of a civil rights activist and as an African-American born nearly three decades before passage of the Civil Rights Act, Peggy Peterman was bound to have some fire in her belly. Those at this newspaper who watched her first write for, and then call for the demise of, the Negro news page certainly know that.
But the Peggy Peterman who died on Thursday, who had spent 31 years at the St. Petersburg Times prior to her retirement, was also a gentle woman of the South who laughed and hugged easily. For much of her career, she fielded the same feature writing assignments as her colleagues, which in itself can create a tension for black journalists. Upon her retirement, she shared how her activist father, William P. Mitchell, had once chided her: "First you demeaned yourself and your people by writing for a Jim Crow Page, and now you're only writing about white people and their issues."
Peterman did write about white people and their issues, but she left her mark by telling stories of racial injustice. She was celebrated by such organizations as the National Association of Black Journalists and Florida A&M University because she was such an inspiration to those who followed her lead. She lived through the historic challenges of her community of St. Petersburg, through a tense garbage workers strike, a court-ordered desegregation of public schools, a firestorm set off by a young black man now known as Omali Yeshitela who tore a racially offensive mural from a wall inside City Hall.
In her earliest days at this newspaper, starting in 1965, Peterman received mail from an anonymous reader who would include pennies in the envelope. The pennies were supposed to convey the reader's contempt for the worth of her contributions, and almost every note was laced with the racist epithet that begins with the letter N. Peterman kept those letters, and said later they provided her with inspiration. "I can see those messages as a product of a different era and as a reference point in our nation's racial history," she wrote, "but I won't forget them, either, and I find myself still worrying today."
Months before Peterman retired, in 1996, she received a letter that also used the N-word and implored her to "give up, b----." She would describe that letter to her newsroom colleagues, and to readers, in a pensive manner. But it was also what stoked her fires and why Peggy would insist that, upon her death, we look ahead, to the work that still remains.