The Past Ain't Even the Past

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This piece on Fuqua Academy in Virginia deserves a long excerpt:


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.

We read a lot about healing the wounds of race. But in the case of academies like Fuqua -- which are all across the Deep South -- the wound is actually the institution. That institution was not simply the result of a private, if deplorable, initiative. It effectively took tax dollars out of the hands of black people to support white supremacy and then told them if they didn't like it, they had to move.

And the wound festers. I'm sure Murphy is a good person, looking to make the world a better place by purging some of the shame out of Fuqua. But one has a hard time imagining her describing a white freshman student as looking like a "25-year old drug dealer." That is the sort of comment that makes people, with some knowledge of the South's neurosis around black males, shiver. It also is the sort of comment that -- as if I would need more justification -- would make me hesitant to send my child there.

Murphy's comment is unfortunate. But more unfortunate is the fact that she's in this business to begin with. White supremacy has always been a coward's game. I think of Ulysses Grant's description of the slavers who ushered in the death's of 600,000 Americans:

Demagogues who were too old to enter the army if there should be a war, others who entertained so high an opinion of their own ability that they did not believe they could be spared from the direction of the affairs of state in such an event, declaimed vehemently and unceasingly against the North; against its aggressions upon the South; its interference with Southern rights, etc., etc.

They denounced the Northerners as cowards, poltroons, negro-worshippers; claimed that one Southern man was equal to five Northern men in battle; that if the South would stand up for its rights the North would back down. Mr. Jefferson Davis said in a speech, delivered at La Grange, Mississippi, before the secession of that State, that he would agree to drink all the blood spilled south of Mason and Dixon's line if there should be a war. 

The young men who would have the fighting to do in case of war, believed all these statements, both in regard to the aggressiveness of the North and its cowardice. They, too, cried out for a separation from such people. The great bulk of the legal voters of the South were men who owned no slaves; their homes were generally in the hills and poor country; their facilities for educating their children, even up to the point of reading and writing, were very limited; their interest in the contest was very meagre--what there was, if they had been capable of seeing it, was with the North; they too needed emancipation. Under the old regime they were looked down upon by those who controlled all the affairs in the interest of slave-owners, as poor white trash who were allowed the ballot so long as they cast it according to direction.

Grant is speaking about a direct war. But this formula -- where those who call for defense of the white nation-state, do not bear the weight of it's maintenance, is always with us. The men who set up Fuqua are likely dead. It was their luxury to live in a time when open overt white supremacy was acceptable. It's their children's burden to live in a time when white supremacy is a disgraced and fallen notion -- particularly when you're trying to build a football team.

The architects and advocates of red-lining, block-busting, poll taxing, grandfather clausing, debt-peonage, convict-leasing, white terrorism, Wilsonian employment discrimination, and Confederate flag raising grew fat off their interests. But they are all dead. Now it is left to the citizens of South Carolina to explain by what coincidence they found themselves raising a flag of treason over the State House precisely when the Civil Rights movement began picking up steam. The motive is always to evade responsibility, to pass the debt on to one's children under the fantasy that that which is plainly in the cards can somehow be forestalled.

It's a sad story. I feel bad that Fuqua has to labor under history -- but then how can it not? The school was literally founded to advance the cause of white supremacy, something it's headmaster, as late as 1981 -- "Most blacks simply do not have the ability to do quality school-work," -- was still arguing for.

These schools should never have existed. But they do  and I understand why people work on their behalf. Institutions have a way of transcending their initially stated motives. Still it's going to take some incredible labor to remove that stain. This isn't like slavery. This is something recent.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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