FARMVILLE, Va. — Nearly 50 years after it opened as a sanctuary for white students in a county that resisted school desegregation to the very end, the Fuqua School wanted badly to prove its racist days were over.
The private school in this town on the banks of the Appomattox River accepted its first black student in the late 1980s. But the black community here still knew Fuqua as central Virginia’s most famous “segregation academy.”
It was still viewed, well into the 21st century, as a symbol of defiance to the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. It was still seen as a place where black students were unwelcome.
To shed that image, Fuqua needed a black student ambassador.
So in 2008 the school’s president, Ruth Murphy, sat down with Charles Williams, a freshman from the local public high school. Football coaches had arranged the meeting. Williams happened to be a quarterback with a powerful throwing arm who could burst through tacklers. He was faster and stronger than boys years older.
The two met in Murphy’s office and considered each other.
“All I’d heard was that this was the ‘white school,’ ” Williams recalled. “I was from the ‘black school.’ I didn’t really know what to do or how to act.”
Murphy, a sparrow of a woman, also felt a bit unsure. “Here was this big strong guy. He was only 14, but he looked like a 25-year-old drug dealer,” she recalled in an interview. When asked later what she meant by that description, Murphy acknowledged that it was a poor choice of words but said that she meant to convey his “maturity and intensity.”
Murphy laid out her offer. Williams could receive Fuqua’s first full minority scholarship, covering the $7,300 tuition. But there was a condition: He would have to promote Fuqua among Farmville’s black residents.
Farmville, population 8,200, the seat of Prince Edward County, is one of dozens of towns across the South where private schools sprang up in the 1950s and ’60s to serve an all-white clientele after public schools were ordered to desegregate. Prince Edward closed its public schools from 1959 to 1964 rather than complying. It was among the last school systems in the country to give up the fight.
In the period of “massive resistance” to Brown v. Board, the Prince Edward Academy was founded for white students in 1959. The private school, later renamed Fuqua, was subsidized by tax dollars. Black students in Prince Edward were forced to drop out or move.
“That history left deep scars,” Murphy said. “In the black community, it made it very hard to see Fuqua as being anything other than racist.”
Other private schools in the South with a similar past are asking the same question as Fuqua. How do you diversify an institution founded to perpetuate segregation?
The answer, Murphy said, is to find a black leader who is comfortable in two worlds.
“I thought to myself, if I can find an African American student who says, ‘I’m at Fuqua and it’s great,’ it would be more valuable than anything else I could do.”
As a freshman, Williams was struggling at Prince Edward County High. He and his mother worried that he wasn’t getting the attention he needed. At Fuqua, they thought, he might get a better education.
And with the school’s connections, Williams might have a better chance at playing Division I college football.
But he would have to tell friends, relatives and fans that he had signed up with a school that many hated. Some warned him that if he made the switch, they would never watch another one of his games.
He thought about it for less than a week. Then he said yes.
“It wasn’t long after,” said his mother, Gloria Jenkins, “that I lost all my friends.”
History creeps up
Now 17, Williams is a senior and captain of Fuqua’s football Falcons. He is known for inspiring pep talks and tenacity on the field. The school says its bet on Williams paid off. Fifteen of Fuqua’s 420 students are black, up from five when he enrolled. And the athletic director calls Williams the best athlete in the school’s history.
Fuqua is near the center of Farmville, a patchwork of residential streets surrounded by miles of farmland. Neighboring towns are monuments to dead industries and more profitable years, with names such as Tobaccoville and Cotton Town and Allens Mill.
In the school’s parking lot, someone has scrawled “Coonhunter” on the asphalt to mark one spot. There’s a swimming pool in the middle of the sprawling campus. Students leave backpacks on the ground without worry. In a bathroom, someone has carved the words “White Power” into a stall — a trace of the troubled past.
“The school has changed, and people here have changed. But you can’t totally eradicate those prejudices,” Murphy said.