When Benjamin Sylvester Ruffin was growing up in Durham’s West End neighborhood, higher education wasn’t an option for most of his peers. But years later, as the first African-American chairman of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors, he helped assure it was an option for many who followed him.
Ruffin, who died in 2006 at age 64, was a business executive whose leadership impacted the education and civil rights communities.
He joined the civil rights movement in the early 1960s while a student at North Carolina Central University, working to improve neighborhoods in Durham.
In 1977, Ruffin became a special assistant to Gov. Jim Hunt, helping to increase opportunities and employment for African-Americans in state government.
His wife, Avon Ruffin, recalls Ruffin’s listening skills. “He was a person who had the ability to listen, and in that, able to build consensus,” she says.
Ruffin was elected to the Board of Governors in 1991, beginning 16 years of service to the 17-campus system. In 1998, he was elected to the first of two terms as Chair, quickly becoming known as an inclusive leader who represented all the institutions.
“You are a creature of your environment,” he said in a 2002 interview. “My environment [growing up] was one where I was excluded. So when I got the chance, I erred on the side of inclusion. I know what a university can do, and I know what it did for me personally.”
Ruffin earned a bachelor’s degree from North Carolina Central University and master’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In the business community, he served as a top executive with North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company and later with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. He was president of The Ruffin Group consulting firm at his death.
Biography written by Amanda K. Lee