It took LaToysha Brown 13 years to realize how little interaction she had with white peers in her Mississippi Delta town: not at church, not at school, not at anywhere.
The realization dawned when she was in the seventh grade, studying the civil rights movement at an after-school program called the Sunflower County Freedom Project. It didn’t bother her at first. By high school, however, Brown had started to wonder if separate could ever be equal. She attended a nearly all-black high school with dangerous sinkholes in the courtyard, spotty Internet access in the classrooms, and a shortage of textbooks all around. Brown had never been inside Indianola Academy, the private school most of the town’s white teenagers attend. But she sensed that the students there had books they could take home and walkways free of sinkholes.
“The schools would achieve so much more if they would combine,” said Brown, now age 17 and a junior.
But more than four decades after they were established, “segregation academies” in Mississippi towns like Indianola continue to define nearly every aspect of community life. Hundreds of these schools opened across the country in the 20 years after the Brown v. Board decision, particularly in southern states like Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, and Virgina. While an unknown number endure outside of Mississippi, the Delta remains their strongest bastion.
A Hechinger Report analysis of private school demographics (using data compiled on the National Center for Education Statistics website) found that more than 35 such academies survive in Mississippi, many of them in rural Delta communities like Indianola. Each of the schools was founded between 1964 and 1972 in response to anticipated or actual desegregation orders, and all of them enroll fewer than two percent black students. (The number of Mississippi “segregation academies” swells well above 35 if schools where the black enrollment is between three and 10 percent are counted.) At some of them — including Benton Academy near Yazoo City and Carroll Academy near Greenwood — not a single black student attended in 2010, according to the most recent data. Others, like Indianola Academy, have a small amount of diversity.
“These schools were started to keep white children away from blacks,” said Wade Overstreet, a Mississippi native and the program coordinator at the national advocacy organization Parents for Public Schools. “They’ve done an amazing job of it.”
It would be easy to see Indianola — and Mississippi more generally — as an anomaly when it comes to education: hyper-segregated, fraught with racial mistrust, stuck in the past. But in some respects, the story of education in Indianola is becoming the story of education in America.
As the Atlantic reported last week, throughout the country, public schools are nearly as segregated as they were in the late 1960s when Indianola Academy opened. In many areas, they are rapidly resegregating as federal desegregation orders end. White families continue to flee schools following large influxes of poor or minority students. And in Indianola, as in the rest of the country, there’s stark disagreement as to why: Whites often cite concerns over school quality, while blacks are more likely to cite the persistence of racism.
Indeed, as Indianola struggles to make its way educationally and economically in the 21st century, the town’s experience serves as a cautionary tale of how separate and unequal schools can not only divide a community, but fracture a place so deeply that its very existence is at stake.
Flight From Gentry
Indianola’s tale of two school systems — one public and black, one private and white — began in January of 1970, when a U.S. district judge ruled that Indianola could no longer permit blatant segregation in its public school system. For years, white students had attended schools north of the train tracks that divide the town, while black students were relegated to inferior school buildings south of the tracks. The plan was to merge the schools and send all high school students — white and black — to the previously black Gentry High School.
In anticipation of the ruling, the white community founded Indianola Academy in 1965. But the fledgling school did not yet have a facility large enough to accommodate the hundreds of white students who left the public schools during Christmas break in 1969, knowing the decision was imminent, said Steve Rosenthal, a senior in high school at the time. Rosenthal said he was instructed to bring his textbooks home with him over break. When school started back up in January, he attended one of the academy’s new satellite campuses in a Baptist church. The situation was far from ideal: Study halls sometimes were interrupted by weekday funerals. Yet not a single white student showed up at Gentry that semester. In the spring, Rosenthal received his diploma as part of the academy’s first graduating class.
Today, Rosenthal serves as mayor of Indianola, a two-hour drive north of Jackson. The academy still thrives. According to the Private School Universe Survey, the school enrolled 434 white students and two black ones during the 2009-10 school year (the most recent year for which such data is available). Yet fewer than 20 percent of the town’s approximately 10,000 residents are white.
Little else is publicly known about Indianola Academy apart from the information the school promulgates on its website. As a private school, its students do not have to take the state’s standardized tests (much to the chagrin of the town’s public school students), though a student handbook on the school’s website states that students should score in the top 30 percent on a student achievement test to gain admission.
Sammy Henderson, the academy’s headmaster, never responded to a reporter’s request to visit while in town. But he did answer several questions via e-mail. Henderson wrote that African-American enrollment at the school has risen to nine students this school year, and “we also have Hispanic, Indian, and Oriental students.” Annual tuition, which includes money for books and other fees, ranges from $3,795 to $5,080, depending on the grade level. And the academy budgets money annually for minority scholarships, spreading word about their availability via newspaper advertisements and word-of-mouth, Henderson said.
IRS tax forms filed by Indianola Academy show the school has raised a modest amount for scholarships in recent years. In 2010, for instance, the school paid out $6,500 for “minority scholarships,” according to those forms.
Tradition and history partly explain why the scholarships aren’t more widely utilized: Black families know their children could be isolated and shunned at the academy; and those with the means and desire to avoid the public schools have long relied on other — more historically welcoming — private schools, including a tiny, nearly all-black Christian academy in Indianola.
But Indianola Academy is also highly selective and opaque in its recruitment and admissions processes for African-Americans, according to public school students and teachers. Applicants have to be top students and submit multiple letters of recommendation, said a Sunflower County Freedom Project participant whose younger brother thought about applying. And some black students appear to be recruited at least partly because of their athletic abilities, said Sam Wallis, a current Gentry teacher, and Katie Cooney, a former one. Henderson denies that claim, writing that several of the academy’s African-American students do not even play sports. He said a “minority scholarship committee” reviews the applications and awards money to those who “meet the qualifications,” although he did not spell out what those qualifications are.
The academy, like other private schools, is eligible for federal money through what are known as Title programs that flow through public school districts. Indianola school district officials say the academy has received about $56,000 in Title II money for professional development over the last two years.
But apart from that exchange of money, there’s little formal or informal interaction between the academy and the public school system, say Indianola residents.
Wallis, a New York native who attended public schools in Westchester County, expected to encounter segregation when he moved to Indianola in 2011 to teach in the public schools. But he had not anticipated such a laissez-faire attitude toward it.
“When I taught Plessy v. Ferguson, I offered it up that separate is not equal. I said it was one of the worst decisions in American history,” he said. “But several of the students said, ‘Why? That sounds okay.’”
Sinkholes and Low Scores
Compared to Indianola Academy, Gentry High School is an open book, its academic struggles exposed to the world. While there’s some modest racial integration at Indianola’s public elementary schools, by high school all but a few white students have departed. Ninety-eight percent of Gentry’s students are black, one percent are Hispanic, and one percent are white. A plaque at the school’s entrance states that Gentry was erected in 1952 as part of South Sunflower County’s “special consolidated school district for colored.”
The campus is made up of several worn buildings, which means that students have to walk outdoors between many of their classes. Since the outdoor drainage and sewage systems are outdated, sinkholes dot the walkways; when it rains, students and teachers can find themselves wading through foot-deep floodwaters.
Even Gentry’s current students believe white county leaders deliberately built a partially outdoors campus 60 years ago, after a fire destroyed the previous school building, because they hoped it would deter black students from coming to school in the rain or cold. “They didn’t want black kids to get an education,” said Brown.
Gentry has struggled with test scores since the state’s accountability system began in the 1990s: Last year, 56 percent of students at the school had passing grades in algebra, 51 percent in English, 42 percent in history, and 17 percent in biology.
But students like Brown believe the poor scores are at least partly because the school lacks the resources it needs to be successful. Students sometimes swelter in classrooms without working air-conditioning during the hottest months and they can shiver without enough heat during the coldest. In some classes, the teenagers cannot take textbooks home because teachers fear they will get lost. Computers crash constantly because of low bandwidth. In Wallis’ first year at Gentry (2011-12), he inherited government textbooks identifying the latest U.S. president as George H.W. Bush.
“The school needs to be torn down and rebuilt altogether,” says Brown.
Her classmate, 16-year-old Primus Apolonio, says poorly behaved students also keep Gentry down — partly by scaring away the teachers. Of the six young instructors brought to Gentry in the fall of 2011 through the alternative recruitment program, Teach For America, Wallis was the only one to return for a second year. Others left for personal reasons, or because of frustration with the job, according to Gentry staff. Teach for America participants typically make two-year commitments to teach in a high-needs school.
“The students are disrespectful to the point where the teachers don’t stay,” said Apolonio. “And the school [administration] does not do anything but paddle them and send them back to class.” (Corporal punishment has long been legally employed by Indianola’s school district staff, as in other parts of the state. Earl Watkins, the “conservator” recently appointed by the state to oversee the school district, wrote in an e-mail that teachers have also been trained in other discipline strategies. “Because corporal punishment has been a practice for many years in the district, professional development must precede the reduction/phase-out of it,” Watkins wrote.)
But Apolonio agrees with Brown that students would behave better if they felt like the community placed more value on their education. “During the winter it gets cold and the heaters don’t work in the classrooms,” he said. “Of course the kids are going to get more disruptive.”
Gentry and Indianola Academy do not play each other in interscholastic sports; academies typically play other academies. Yet throughout most its history — and for reasons that remain the subject of urban legend in town — Indianola Academy has maintained control of a large football field adjacent to the old public junior high school (which now houses the district’s early childhood center), on land town leaders say is actually privately owned by the American Legion. Instead of sharing the field, the academy leaders put their logo, IA, on the buildings like territorial markings. There’s also a six-foot barbed wire fence around the field’s perimeter: a stark reminder that outsiders should stay away.
Two Communities, Two Narratives
Indianola, like other segregated communities across the country, is defined not only by two school systems and two sides of town, but by two competing narratives that attempt to explain segregation’s stubborn persistence.
According to one narrative, white leaders and residents starved the public schools of necessary resources after decamping for the academy, an institution perpetuated by racism. According to the opposing narrative, malfeasance and inept leadership contributed to the downfall of the public schools, whose continued failings keep the academy system alive.
Hury Minniefield is a purveyor of the former narrative. He was one of the first black students to integrate the town’s public schools in 1967 through a voluntary — and extremely limited — desegregation program. He and his two younger brothers spent a single academic year at one of the town’s white schools. “Because the blacks were so few in number, we didn’t interfere with the white students too much and never did hear the ‘n word’ too much,” he said.
Despite his unique personal history, Minniefield does not believe the schools in Indianola will ever truly integrate. “It has not been achieved and it will likely never be achieved,” he said. “It’s because of the mental resistance of Caucasians against integrating with blacks. … Until the white race can see their former slaves as equals, it will not happen.”
Steve Rosenthal, the mayor, takes a different view. He argues that many white families have no problem sending their children to school with black students, but choose Indianola Academy because the public schools are inferior. His two children, both in their 20s, graduated from the academy, where he believes they received a strong education. “I would not have had a problem sending them to public schools had the quality been what I wanted,” he said, adding a few minutes later, “If there’s mistrust, it’s the black community toward the whites.”
Rosenthal and Minniefield also have divergent views on what led to the public schools’ decline.
The white community “would prefer not to pay a dime to the public schools,” said Minniefield. “It’s had a devastating effect on resources and the upward mobility of the community.”
Rosenthal is not deaf to such arguments, agreeing that the Gentry campus should be updated or replaced. However, he cites mismanagement as well. When the state took over the schools in 2009, the district reportedly employed dozens of unnecessary employees, he says. “The old saying was that even the secretaries had secretaries,” he said. “I don’t think funding was our entire problem.”
Students tend to offer the most nuanced perspective on why wholesale segregation endures. “It’s because of both races,” said Brown. “No one wants to break that boundary or cross that line. Both sides are afraid.”
The Academies’ Local Impact
The private academies scattered throughout the state have more in common than racial demographics and founding purpose. Many of them, like Indianola Academy, are located on their town’s “Academy Drive” and embrace mascots that hearken back to the Civil War: the Generals, the Patriots, the Colonels. Their websites often prominently display non-discrimination clauses — yet feature photos only of smiling white children.
The academies are also partly responsible for destroying the economic and educational fortunes of their communities, contends Dick Molpus, a former Mississippi secretary of state who co-founded Parents for Public Schools.
Those communities that continue to operate two separate school systems “are moving onto life support if they are not already dead,” he said. “Companies don’t want to come to places where both of the school systems are inferior.” Molpus added that Mississippi towns have limited amounts of money, power, and influence. “When those three things are divided between black public schools and white academies, both offer substandard education,” he said.
Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and expert on school desegregation, said he’s concerned that increasing numbers of poor, minority students will attend under-resourced schools nationally if segregation continues to deepen. Although research has uncovered blatant racial disparities in school spending, Kahlenberg defines school “resources” more broadly — including teacher quality, parent involvement and peer college aspirations — all of which he says tend to lag at schools with predominantly low-income, minority students.
‘We Would Give Away Our Empty Buildings’
Rosenthal maintains that Indianola Academy, at least, offers a superior education. But he, too, is worried about the town’s economic future. The schools aren’t preparing enough students for living wage jobs, and the jobs aren’t always there for those who need them. Indianola has lost several major businesses in recent decades, including the yard equipment manufacturer Modern Line and a large catfish processing plant. The town’s population dropped by about 1,400, or 11.5 percent, between the 2000 and 2010 census.
“We would give away our empty buildings to a company that would agree to employ x number of people,” said Rosenthal.
Indianola’s students say they need more than jobs to entice them to stay in a town that feels provincial in more ways than one. “Indianola is small to me,” said Apolonio. “I would bring my family back here and show them where I grew up. But as far as living here? No.”
Brown said the community has been taking small steps forward. For the first time, the school has formal AP U.S. History and English Language courses. Earlier this year the Sunflower Freedom Project published a literary magazine featuring the work of both public school and academy students — an unprecedented collaborative effort. Hundreds of blacks now live north of the train tracks in previously all-white neighborhoods. And youth of different races meet regularly in recreational sports leagues, if not yet at formal interscholastic events. Brown, however, would prefer to live in a town where the milestones are not so modest, the racial divide not so deep.
“I do want to give back to this community,” she said. “But if I start a family I do not want to start it here. We are so behind on everything — especially education.”
Jackie Mader contributed material to this story, which also appeared on The Atlantic on December 13, 2012. Reproduction is not permitted.