You won’t see separate drinking fountains when you visit the Mississippi Delta town of Indianola. But black and white students there are still learning in classrooms that often look like Brown vs. Board of Education never happened.
Most of the town’s black children are enrolled in public schools. To find their white peers you’ll have to drive over to Indianola Academy.
As in many Delta communities, the town’s private school was founded in 1965 —the same year the community’s public schools began desegregation. And even though the desegregation plan the Indianola School Board adopted was neither ambitious nor effective (during the 1968-69 school year, there were no integrated classrooms), just the threat of racial integration was enough to spur dozens of white families to send their children to the new “segregation academy.”
Novelist Steve Yarbrough was swept up in that flight when his father enrolled him in Indianola Academy in the fall of 1966. Yarbrough was only in fourth grade at the time, but he vividly recalls his father’s tirades about struggling to pay for tuition in a recent essay. “Every spring, when it came time to fill out the form declaring whether I would attend the following year, my dad was a terror around the house, mad at both my mother and me, snarling about how we’d have to go without food just to keep me away from you know who,” Yarbrough writes for a new website, The Academy Stories.
“On some level, I always knew this was wrong,” Yarbrough said in an interview. But that didn’t make the conflict any easier.
“There was sort of a war going on inside me. That’s what my parents say and they’re always right,” he said.
Ellen Ann Fentress, a Mississippi writer and documentary filmmaker who graduated from an academy, launched The Academy Stories this October as a way to stoke dialogue about the often glossed-over history of the private schools.
She views the effort as part of the “truth-telling” reckoning the South is having about the public display of Confederate symbols like the Mississippi flag and monuments memorializing the Confederacy.
The project is a collection of first-person essays from early alumni of the private academies, which had enrolled an estimated 675,000-750,000 white students from across the South by the early 1980s. The Mississippi Humanities Council provided initial funding for the effort.
Last year, Fentress was struck by a national news story, first reported by the Jackson Free Press, that uncovered the fact that Mississippi’s sitting U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith attended a segregation academy. “So many of us looked around like, ‘She wasn’t the only one,” said Fentress. “It’s almost like it was so much a part of the oxygen of our generation; it was almost stunning that it was such a shock to the nation when we’re so used to this concept.”
When acclaimed writer Kiese Laymon questioned the full-throated denial by public figures at the center of blackface controversies, Fentress decided to confront her own history.
In her essay for The Bitter Southerner, “Are You a Seg Academy Alum, Too? Let’s Talk,” Fentress explained how the closed nature of her schooling shaped her decision to dress as a Ku Klux Klansman for her school’s assignment “to salute the state’s past” for Mississippi History Day. Fentress writes she lacked “both the moral empathy and even the acquaintance with a black person to fathom that the costume choice was not fun but appalling.”
After her essay published, Fentress found other academy alums who were ready to talk, and she set up the Academy Stories website as a forum. Fentress said the next phase of the project will focus on how communities were shaped, mostly for the worse, by the Deep South Academy movement. “I don’t want it to become a purge and there’s no purpose in it. It needs to go somewhere. Otherwise, it’s that white-centering and it’s all about us,” Fentress said.
But she’s also found there’s a hesitancy among some white Southerners to confront their schooling. “It’s easy to call out something that’s a third party. It’s much tougher to be honest about something that’s so close to home,” Fentress said.
Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Mississippi Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Monday with trends and top stories about education in Mississippi. Subscribe today!
This story about segregation academies was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.