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.”