$10 Million to Buy Out a Relic of Segregation


August 27, 1993|By CARL T. ROWAN

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Tuesday I got a $10 million shock that reminded me just how indelible the passions of racial prejudice are in America. I read that a 76-year-old Georgia tycoon, J.B. Fuqua, had donated ten million bucks to ''bring people together'' in racially traumatized Prince Edward County, Virginia.

My astonishment was that Mr. Fuqua gave the money to the Prince Edward Academy, a veritable social cancer for two generations. He gave a fortune to a little private academy that symbolizes the ultimate in white resistance to Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial segregation in public schools!

How, short of senility, I wondered, could anyone give all that money to a school that has been a social cancer and call it racial healing?

Mr. Fuqua seemed very clear of mind and purpose when I talked to him Wednesday. This upfront man said candidly that he had been embarrassed for years to have business and social associates say to him, ''Oh, you're from Prince Edward County where they closed the schools and denied educations to black children.''

''I wanted to wipe out the stigma of that horrible school closing,'' Mr. Fuqua said. ''So I've put my money where my mouth was.''

In short, he bought the Prince Edward Academy out of existence and created a private school he says will be wide open to all the children of his native county.

I have more reasons than most people to question Mr. Fuqua's judgment, because more than 40 years of my journalistic life have been bruised and scarred by Prince Edward County. I was in Farmville, Virginia, in 1953 when black children rose up against consignment to a wretched Jim Crow school. I was back in Prince Edward County the next year after the Warren Court's nation-jarring ruling, and again in 1959 when county officials closed the public schools rather than allow black children to enter them. They remained shut for four years, wrecking the lives of thousands of promising black youngsters.

I watched the founding of the Prince Edward Academy, a refuge for ''white children only'' that was allowed to use books, 'N teachers, buses and other assets of the closed public schools, even as most black children got no meaningful education.

In 1979, on the 25th anniversary of the Brown decision, I took a television crew to Farmville to hear the Prince Edward Academy's leader, Robert ''Bob'' Redd, tell me in a dozen ways that segregation was best because black kids dragged down white kids. (Mr. Redd will not be running what is now the Fuqua school.)

Later, when the Reagan administration opted to give the Prince Edward Academy tax-exempt status, I went to Congress to protest angrily, but futilely. The academy was compelled to take in a couple of token blacks.

Anyone who cares about America's future must ask, ''How long does it take to erase slavery-era prejudices?'' Forty years haven't done it in Prince Edward County. The views of segregationists about racial superiority and inferiority have prevailed, even as the Prince Edward Academy admitted 25 to 30 black students this year to keep its tax-exempt status. But the public schools on which most black children rely still struggle, burdened financially and otherwise by old angers and hatreds.

Now here comes Mr. Fuqua, rich enough to have given $53 million to education in 15 years, and bold enough to believe that he personally can change racial mindsets and wipe out ancient bigotries in Prince Edward County. He hopes that he can produce racial cooperation by donating $10 million to replace the born-of-bigotry academy.

Mr. Fuqua says he gives to a private school because it isn't burdened by the bureaucracy that envelops public schools. He says he guarantees that there will be enough scholarships for black children to make people forget the racist intent of the academy.

''The school will be changed in its entirety,'' the industrialist said. ''The academy disappeared yesterday.''

Could it really be that one man with big money can provoke social change, and educational justice, beyond anything the courts and governments have been able to do for four decades?

Blacks I've talked to in Farmville are skeptical, as am I. But a $10 million broom sweeps away a lot of ethnic dirt and emotional cobwebs. So let's give Mr. Fuqua the benefit of the doubt.

8, Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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