P.G. Peeples, Sr., joined the Urban League of Lexington in 1968 as education director, just a year after the local chapter was founded and shortly after Peeples, an Eastern Kentucky native, graduated from the University of Kentucky. In 1971, Peeples became president and CEO of what is now called the Urban League of Lexington–Fayette County (ullex.org), and has led the organization in that capacity for more than 50 years.
With a mission of working to “provide economic empowerment, educational opportunities and the guarantee of civil rights for the underserved in America,” the National Urban League was founded in 1910 and has since grown to include chapters in 90 cities across the country. As the longtime leader of Lexington’s chapter, Peeples has guided efforts to bridge gaps in equality locally, and particularly to increase affordable housing within the city. Here he shares his insight and experience on the recent movement to bring about reforms in law enforcement and related topics.
It really seems that both the national protests and the COVID-19 pandemic have laid bare many systemic inequalities for all to see.
The scab has been pulled back again. Again. That scab has been pulled back many times. I’ve been doing this Urban League job for 52 years, so I’ve seen a lot. What frustrates me is when we go through these times everybody becomes highly sensitized, and then we go back to business as usual. But, I’ll tell you what I really like about the unrest now, is it’s young people. All colors of young people. And they seem to be hell-bent on not being turned around, and that creates the kind of leverage for those of us who do what we do to get it done. In the civil rights vernacular, we refer to it as the ‘tree shakers and the jelly makers’. The marches and all gets their attention, and then somebody has got to come along and start putting together programs and plans and negotiating and raising money to change things. Now we’ve got to do some concrete things that gives these young people something that they can really see and believe.
Do you have an idea of what that looks like?
Not yet, but we know what the issues are. The issues are affordable housing, policing, economic disparity and closing our achievement gap. Let’s go back 15 years here in Lexington, when we were marching down at the school board about the academic achievement gap and everybody was in denial about it existing. And then finally we got the Chamber of Commerce to come on board and advocate along with us that we needed to change and we needed to identify that gap and work on it. And it’s getting better. Diversity in employment in the schools is better. There’s a black superintendent.
That’s also when we created the Fayette County School Equity Council, which is still in existence. [Peeples served as chairman of the Equity Council for its first eight years.] We’re the only equity council run by a district, I think, in the state, and it continues to have impact.
And those areas are what the National Urban League focuses on as well, correct?
It’s in our DNA. That’s what we do. We just have different approaches to getting it done. I’m one of the few agencies that really has a focus on affordable housing. There’s two of us, Miami and Lexington. Since 1984, when my organization made housing a priority, we’ve done right at about $28 million worth of affordable housing projects in Lexington.
When we first started, we were building houses to sell to first-time homebuyers and we were training ex-inmates [in construction]. I think we did about 175 houses, and most of those were sold to single females raising families. Fast forward to 2008 or ’09, when the economy did a flip on us, and we changed our model to start building units that we hold and rent. We now have about 65 units in downtown that we own and rent, plus two apartment complexes. So, we are a small business ourselves.
I was glad to see that the city found some more money in the rainy day fund to begin to support the affordable housing program again.
That’s sorely needed, but a big issue right now in our community — the 500-pound gorilla in Lexington — is gentrification. I’m hell-bent on making this community have some conversations about it. There is a task force that’s been at work for almost two years, and we’re about at the point of releasing some recommendations on our gentrification issues and what we have to do if we want to fix it. Councilmen James Brown and [Vice Mayor Steve Kay] have chaired that.
You have people, because of rising taxes, who may have to get out of their own homes. I’ll give you a hypothetical case of a gentleman who’s maybe 60 or 70 years old and may have worked at UK as a janitor all his life, and who bought a nice home by his standards in the urban core and raised his family, and he’s getting to the point where now, because of taxes escalating, he can’t stay in his own house.
The other thing is, you have speculators who are coming in with deep pockets and buying up everything and when they flip [the properties], they’re not affordable. Let me by crystal-clear: I am not against free enterprise, but we owe it to make sure that when the tide rises, all boats get lifted.
“It’s been very inspiring watching these young people grab this bull by the horns and say, ‘We’re going to walk until we get some change.’” — P.G. Peeples, Sr.
What keeps you inspired?
It’s been very inspiring watching these young people grab this bull by the horns and say, ‘We’re going to walk until we get some change.’ What has kept me inspired over the years with the Urban League job is that it has never been boring, because we always do something different. We started the first African–American radio station [in Lexington]. We started doing the housing thing. We’ve done so many firsts. Rising to the challenge to learn how to do those firsts — that’s what keeps you going. And then when it works out and you can see the results — like the housing on Chestnut Street when we first started building houses and sold them to first-time homebuyers — it’s heartwarming.