A child of the Depression, James Winston Peebles was only 5 when his father died, leaving Peebles’ mother to raise her five children in a one-and-a-half-bedroom house on 16th Ave. in North Nashville.
“We were dirt poor,” Peebles recalls. “At 9, I got a job carrying wood and coal in our neighborhood. When I was 11, I got a dollar-a-Saturday cleaning up the chicken houses over on 14th Avenue.”
Eventually, Peebles made it to college, earning a bachelor’s degree in Spanish in 1955 from Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State University (now Tennessee State University). He helped pay for his studies by working as a janitor on the Tennessee A&I campus.
Peebles went on to receive a master of arts from Tennessee A&I in 1962. That same year, he says, he earned a bachelor’s degree in theology from American Theological Seminary (now American Baptist College). He taught on and off in Nashville’s public schools for 26 years.
After leaving the school system in 1985, Peebles devoted his full energies to the book-publishing business in which he had been dabbling since the mid-1970s. Today, at age 65, he is the president of Winston-Derek Publishers Group and the founder of the Sankofa African Heritage Museum. He is also listed as associate editor of The Original African Heritage Study Bible, which has been Winston-Derek’s best-selling title ever since it was published in 1993.
The leather-bound Study Bible comes with a protective paper cover that lists Peebles’ academic credentials. In addition to his degrees from TSU and American Theological Seminary, the list includes a master’s degree from the University of Maine and a Ph.D. in philosophy and letters from the University of Madrid. Around Nashville, Peebles is often referred to as “Doc Peebles”; he gives his name as “James W. Peebles, Ph.D.” on his business cards.
But a spokesman for American Baptist College and a spokeswoman for the University of Maine said neither of their institutions has any record of having granted a degree to Peebles. According to a biographical sketch in the fifth-anniversary issue of Nashville Metropolitan Black Yellow Pages, Peebles’ degree from the University of Maine at Orono is in “linguistics and bi-cultural studies.” A spokeswoman in that school’s Office of Student Records said no such degree has ever been offered by the University of Maine.
The University of Madrid did not respond to two written requests for information about Peebles’ studies there. However, the Scene obtained a copy of his Madrid transcript, now on file with the state Department of Education, which is sometimes required to verify teachers’ claims that they hold degrees from foreign schools. The education department’s files say Peebles’ Ph.D. is authentic.
But according to professors of Spanish at Vanderbilt University and Middle Tennessee State University, who analyzed Peebles’ Madrid transcript at the Scene’s request, the transcript only proves that Peebles took coursesseven in allat the University of Madrid.
Judith Rusciolelli, who chairs MTSU’s Foreign Languages and Literatures Department, said the transcript “shows that Mr. Peebles pursued doctoral studies at the University of Madrid, but there is no evidence in the certificate that he completed or was awarded the doctoral degree there.” To obtain the Ph.D., Peebles would have had to submit a dissertation but, explains Christopher Maurer, professor of Spanish at Vanderbilt University, “I found no record of his having written one, and that line is crossed out by university officials on his transcript.”
Administrators in the Nashville school system confirmed that, because Peebles’ records indicated that he had a doctorate, he earned approximately $80,000 in extra salary while teaching for Metro. Metro schools spokesman Craig Owensby said the school district has asked a New York-based diploma-evaluation firm, which specializes in checking out foreign degrees, to investigate Peebles’ Spanish doctorate. According to Owensby, if it turns out that Peebles’ Ph.D. is not legitimate, the city may take legal action to recover the extra salary Peebles was paid while teaching for Metro.
Peebles notes that his Ph.D. has been “validated” by the state of Tennessee, which signed off on the transcript received from the University of Madrid. “I qualified, studied, and received the appropriate doctorate degree,” Peebles stated in a written statement provided to the Scene.
Peebles’ academic credentials notwithstanding, his experience as a Metro school teacher was not entirely pleasant. When he retired from his position as an English teacher at Pearl-Cohn High School, the resulting story in the March 13, 1985, Tennessean was headlined “2 Teachers Tied to Sex Probe Leave.” According to the Tennessean story, Peebles and another teacher left their jobs “after their names surfaced in a police investigation into alleged illicit sexual activities between students and teachers at the school.”
The Tennessean reported that Peebles denied the allegations, saying they were made by a student who was trying to get revenge for disciplinary action he had taken against her.
In an interview with the Scene, Peebles vehemently stated that the student’s allegations were untrue. He said he left teaching because he was “ready for a change.”
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