Fuqua School looks to African American football star to shatter racist legacy

December 11, 2011

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.

One fall afternoon, Williams leaves Fuqua for a weekly ritual: a pregame visit to his barber shop. He drives a family car through a poor neighborhood that is almost entirely black, full of men who wave at him. Williams’s home looks much like these — the reflection of a family struggling to stay afloat.

“People at school look at this street like it’s the ghetto,” Williams says, waving back. “But I grew up with these guys. I’ve known them forever. I guess you might call some of them lowlifes because of what they’re into, but I’m not going to judge them.”

Everyone at Tony Tucker’s barber shop knows Williams. He grew up running footraces against a Rottweiler in front of Tucker’s house.

Older men waiting for a chair insist that the young man cut ahead of them in line. They can tell you how many yards Williams, who’s now the starting running back, ran for the previous week. They can tell you which college scouts are pursuing him. (There have been feelers from Virginia Tech, the University of Richmond and Old Dominion University.)

In four hours, he will lace up his cleats to play in the biggest game of the year. But first he must play ambassador on the other side of town.

Williams, wearing his Fuqua jersey, eases into the barber’s chair. He doesn’t defend the school when talk turns to its messy past. He’s a natural diplomat.

“He’s the reason black folks go over there now,” Tucker says, perfecting Williams’s hairline. “Before that, we didn’t touch the place. It was always just ‘that racist school.’ ”

Not everyone at the shop is convinced.

“For a lot of them, it’s still painful,” says Quincy Jones, 71.

“They’re still living in the past,” Williams interjects. “They don’t want to just learn from it and move on.”

Back in the car, Williams sighs. He feels alone as he straddles two worlds.

“Got this whole city on my shoulders,” he says.

Sometimes, it’s worth the burden. Like when Tucker started showing up at the Fuqua stadium. Or when his grades improved thanks to coaching from a few attentive teachers. (He has a B average and recently took the SAT in preparation for college.) Or after a solid game under the lights, when the team of undersize white kids coheres around Williams, playing beyond their abilities.

But success is rarely simple. History keeps creeping up.

When Farmville recently renovated a civil rights museum, Williams was invited as a special guest. He met black residents who lost years of education when public schools closed. They call themselves, Williams learned, the “crippled generation.”

Some of his football coaches, hired to lead an all-white team decades ago, expressed little regret about the school’s past.

“Things changed. Not for the better. Not for the worse. They just changed,” says Walter Addleman, who has coached the team for more than 30 years.

In the back seat of the car Williams is driving, there’s a bag of candy and a glittery piece of construction paper with his name and jersey number, made by an apple-cheeked cheerleader named Peyton Wall.

One of Wall’s great-grandfathers was an architect of Fuqua — a man deeply committed to the school’s racist foundation.

“We were defending people’s right to educate the races differently,” J. Barrye Wall told a historian in 1979. “We lost in court — the South lost — but it’s still not settled.”

Fuqua officials in that era shared his vision.

“We’re goddamned if we’re going to tell everyone that we were hypocrites all those years,” Fuqua’s attorney, George Leonard, said at a federal court hearing in 1978. “Fundamentally, we believe blacks deserve a different type of education than whites.”

In 1981, school headmaster Robert T. Redd told a historian: “Most blacks simply do not have the ability to do quality schoolwork.”

Thirty years later, Peyton Wall calls such views shameful and archaic. “Our school got over all that,” she said.

Williams looks at the candy, the glittery good luck charm. Ghosts everywhere.

Bridging a divide

The drive from the barber shop to teammate Carter Cunningham’s palatial home takes about 10 minutes. Williams announces the moment his car passes the threshold between Farmville’s two worlds.

The houses get bigger. The driveways leading to old plantations get longer.

“This is where kids from school live,” Williams says.

It’s time for his second pre-game ritual. This one is pool and foosball and video games on a flat-screen television. It’s fart jokes and jabs about girlfriends. It’s Williams slumped on the couch, looking at his cellphone while his buddies take turns locking each other in the basement bathroom.

Somewhere near Augusta, Ga., his dad has taken a break from his job as a deliveryman to text his son: “How’s school?” The phone buzzes in Williams’ hand.

“I gotta do what I gotta do,” he writes back.

He thinks about the game now, just two hours away, imagining holes in the defensive line, running plays in his head. If the team loses tonight, the season is over. If they win, they’re in the playoffs. As always, the outcome hinges on Williams.

He says it again: “Got this city on my shoulders.”

In private schools across Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, there are students much like Williams, who play for schools that once excluded their parents and grandparents. Some in the black community say the schools are more interested in strong athletic programs than true integration.

At Fuqua, where the football team is the beating heart of the school, administrators point to Williams’s ability to ingratiate himself as a glimpse of what the rest of the school might one day look like. It could be a place that produces black leaders, where Farmville’s racial divide dissolves.

Ever since Charles got here, we’ve seen black students express interest in Fuqua who would never have considered coming here before. He’s really changed the game,” said Rick Davis, the team’s offensive coordinator.

This year, Fuqua hired its first black administrator, an assistant athletic director named Marcus Gregory. His job isn’t just about developing a strong sports program, he says, it’s about redemption.

Gregory’s grandfather, part of Farmville’s “crippled generation,” had a different response to the job offer. He thought that accepting it would be a betrayal.

When the boys pour out of the mansion into pickup trucks and head toward the locker room, Williams stays behind to collect trash. “It’s just how I was raised,” he says.

Not long afterward, he gives a valedictory pump-up speech, pacing a locker room where generations of white athletes prepared to play white opponents. He is surrounded by his own white teammates.

“I love football,” he tells them, “but I love you guys more. You guys are my family.”

On the way out of the locker room, he passes a young fan wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with a Confederate flag. “Go Falcons!” the fan calls out.

On Fuqua’s first offensive play, he runs 57 yards for a touchdown. He is a man playing with boys. He can’t be touched.

On the sidelines, his mother explodes into cheers. His nephews high-five each other. His barber lets out a hoot.

The night gets colder. Some players shiver on the sidelines. “You white boys stay out in the freezing cold waiting for a deer to come by,” Williams says, smiling. “This should be nothing.”

He scores three more touchdowns, running for 226 yards. There are more hugs, more high-fives, more fans screaming his name. Fuqua’s season doesn’t end on this night.

After the game, Williams marches into the locker room. He looks his teammates in the eyes.

“We’re one step closer to our goal,” he yells. “We can’t let up.”

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Kevin Sieff has been The Post’s bureau chief in Afghanistan since 2012. He served previously as an education reporter in Washington, and had covered the U.S. -Mexico border.
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