By Ellen Ann Fentress
The stakes were high when Deep South school desegregation in the 1970s transformed the region’s classrooms, stadiums, and teachers’ lounges into America’s most integrated spaces, at least for a while. The Supreme Court called a halt to nearly two decades of post-1954 Brown v. Board of Education stonewalling, and racial history shifted in one sweep. Black and white, children and educators, lives changed. Old patterns shattered. The transformation, wrapped in clear historic moral purpose, affected over 11 million children.
And then there was us. I’m one of the estimated 500,000 Deep South white alumni of the segregation academies that sprouted up in 11 states to defy the ideal of racial equality.
Films like the Virginia-set “Remember the Titans” and “The Best of Enemies,” based on Durham, North Carolina events, center on that hard-won ’70s moment of public school transformation. The academies’ parallel stories? We don’t talk about it much. We alums prefer skipping over our high school history since the truth of our all-white alma maters inevitably brings on blowback today. (In my home state of Mississippi, U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith’s 1977 graduation from Lawrence County Academy ballooned into a campaign issue in last year’s Senate race. Governor Phil Bryant likes to say he attended Jackson public schools, but he spent his final years at McCluer Academy, graduating in 1973.) The Jackson Free Press broke both stories.
The fact is, however, our academy bona fides matter in far more scenarios than the unlikely one in which I run for office. Our academy educations matter all the time. They matter not just in terms of what people ought to know about us, but, just as importantly, in what we know — or dare to confront — about ourselves. Otherwise, we look so okay, right?
It’s over-Faulknerified to say so, but the past’s not past, and certainly not for white academy alums living and engaging in the 2019 world. Our story is not just history but an unfolding question: How does that defiant schooling still shape us and our heads by default? It does, of course, in unconscious and conscious ways.
Among Mississippi academy alums aren’t just ruby-red officeholders like Hyde-Smith in Washington and Bryant in the Governor’s Mansion. Many Mississippians who’ve marked our culture came out of white academies too. These include actor Sela Ward (Lamar School, 1973) and blockbuster novelists Donna Tartt (Kirk Academy, 1981) and Kathryn Stockett (Jackson Preparatory School, founded in 1970, her alma mater in 1987). Author Steve Yarbrough graduated from Indianola Academy in 1975 while writer-journalist Neely Tucker ruled as Mr. Starkville Academy 1982. Let the record reflect I was in the Pillow Academy Class of 1974 Hall of Fame. Hyde-Smith’s segregation academy was about 150 miles south of mine. Bryant’s academy in Jackson used to play mine in football. (In my memory, McCluer parents were famous for spoiling for a post-game fight with our parents.)
In Mississippi, our cohort represented 60 thousand-odd white children who disappeared from the state’s public schools as integration took hold in earnest. In 1964, the state had less than 20 private schools. The number rocketed to 236 by 1971.
I enrolled in Pillow Academy in January 1970, the moment when 33 Mississippi school districts, including our Delta town’s, were directed by the U.S. Supreme Court to cease the delay. Schools were to reopen after Christmas break fully integrated. In some districts, white students were told to take along their public-school textbooks at Christmas. They’d be using them in their new private schools in January.
I’m certain the all-white academy experience left its mark on me. It did on the others, too. If Hyde-Smith’s and Bryant’s records include episodes of racist antagonism — and they do — they came out of high schools founded on exactly that. Race plays into the works of Mississippi novelists who come out of the academies as well, either by confronting white supremacy or sometimes by simply producing work in which their whiteness comes through. Sometimes both.
My academy was a scrambled egg-yellow steel building in a cotton field near the Mississippi town of Greenwood. My parents and those of my eighth-grade friends plucked us from our public school ahead of the town’s approaching black-enrollment increase. For the record, my friends and I hated Pillow Academy. Not because we were racially enlightened — I won’t insult you with a cover-up story — but because the school was surprisingly big and chaotic. We were unhappy at being deposited into the raw new building outside the city limits with enrollment drawn from five or so counties, racial views aside. Our oak-shaded, blond-brick Greenwood public school had been familiar and better equipped with features like a cafeteria and a feeling of belonging. Everyone in that era in the South, black and white, all 11 million of us who were school age, has a story on how their schooling transformed. In that way, we did have a shared experience — the only common interracial one for those of us in the academies.
Back then, I felt bad about my new school’s obvious purpose. I silently fretted I’d be asked, point-blank, by someone who was black what school I attended. I cringed at the insult my answer represented. I needn’t have worried over a conversation so unlikely; despite living in the Mississippi Delta — an area with the highest proportion of black residents of any region of the country — I surreally never actually knew one black teen in my town of 23,000. That was an immediate byproduct of academy schooling, which limited my stock of life experiences to draw from as an adult.
At the outpost in the Delta field, our 1970s high school years were average in some ways: the Jackson Five and Gladys Knight as a soundtrack (interestingly, Motown was the top choice, white rockers second tier), shag haircuts and repeated reads of the Sonny Corleone sex scene in The Godfather paperback. Before long, the new academy developed real school trappings like a Photography Club and Valentine Dance to go along with the school’s bedrock racist principle. We were quiet about the white-supremacist purpose. It didn’t need to be articulated; it was sidestepped by the euphemistic, loaded explanation that Pillow had been established for “a quality education.”
Even so, the weekend vandalism in town shouted in loud paint. In Just Trying to Have School, a new history of Mississippi school desegregation in that era, Mary Carol Miller remembers Pillow Academy boys coming to integrated Greenwood High on weekends, painting N— TECH on the parking lot pavement. In turn, Greenwood High students sneaked onto the Pillow grounds to scrawl REDNECK TECH, she said.
What we learned in Pillow history class was distorted, but so was the public-school curriculum then too: Enslaved people had enjoyed good treatment and Reconstruction — the brief years when black Mississippians held office and voted in substantial numbers — was an era of white suffering like the Civil War itself. None of us heard a word about the lynching of Emmett Till in our hometown’s backyard, although the visiting Chicago teen’s death had drawn international coverage in 1955 and launched the civil-rights movement. When I finally heard about the Till case — I was 25, living 260 miles away, and it was the 1980s — I recognized the last names of classmates I’d known whose parents and grandparents had been in law enforcement or led the winning defense of Till’s murderers. The murderers eventually confessed for Look magazine after their acquittal. Bryant’s Store, the site where Till allegedly flirted with the owner, was nine miles from my former public school.
Here’s the aftermath of academy bona fides, I think: I want to gauge how the thinking bred in such a culture — growing up inside a white society that invested huge energy and money into the segregation academy’s creation — lingers inside our heads still, even if switched to silent. We were conscientiously and misguidedly furnished an unbending white universe. I wonder how the region — and all of us with the seg academy imprint — would have been different if an alternative had happened and the public decision had been to invest fully in staying in the public schools and making them work? Instead, I’m uncertain I can ever completely disconnect the old framework inside deep places in my head. The point of our rigid academy schooling and parallel existence was to keep us blind to all beyond it. This blocks you from knowing what you don’t know. Minds that result from an immersion like that are like the baffled fish in the parable: when asked how’s the water, the fish asks, “What’s water?” The fish can’t grasp the singularity of its surroundings, which, in my case, were comprehensively white case.
A 1971 research paper released by the Southern Regional Council on segregation academies said as much:
Many of these new schools, with their underlying philosophy of “Never!” are a warping influence on the children who attend. Even aside from the implications of removing children to a segregated situation in a democratic country, it is important to note many of these schools are motivated by an extremely right-wing philosophy which in the name of “patriotism” and “quality education” is a perversion of the nation’s ideals.
When it comes to the racist comments and dress-up of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Mississippi’s Hyde-Smith, I get their capacity for tone-deaf oblivion, a symptom bred in our school years, a time when laws had changed but many white minds that didn’t intend to. Rather than receiving a “quality education,” the truth was that our shut-away school ensured our ignorance to all beyond our white lock-in in the middle of a field.
Last year, Hyde-Smith made headlines for a joke about a public hanging during her campaign for Senate — to represent the state with the highest number of documented lynchings in its history. As for Bryant, he invited the polarizing President Donald Trump to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum’s 2017 opening, setting off a first-day boycott by black supporters, including civil-rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. While Bryant’s stunt came across as openly hostile, sometimes our peer group’s skulls seem full of a free-floating white blindness that needs unpacking.
Here’s an episode to share: that silent, anxious disapproval of mine over my school’s racist rationale? It didn’t count for much for me on ninth-grade Mississippi History Day. I had what I thought a funny idea, since we were assigned to dress up to salute the state’s past. I dug in the hall closet at home for a sheet to go as a Ku Klux Klansman. I lacked both the moral empathy and even the acquaintance with a black person to fathom that the costume choice was not fun but appalling. Then again, maybe my wardrobe selection was a crystal-pure reflection of my education. In fact, maybe it said more than my ninth-grade academy report card ever could.
I failed to think about how, six years before, three young civil-rights volunteers had been captured and murdered by Klansmen 90-odd miles away in Neshoba County. I paraded down the concrete school hall with classmates in blander settler costumes. No one called me on the outfit — neither my parents nor any teacher or classmate. They were as heedless — and white — as I was. I think I remember the school custodian, African American, silently looking at my get-up in the hall. Or do I? Was his gaze an imagined guilty memory, the human version of a faint tremor in my conscience?
Recently, I pulled my yearbooks off the high top shelf. Naturally I spotted it: a blackface photo. Page 150 of the 1972 volume. It featured a trio of boys in gooey face paint, wigs and cheerleader dresses. Maybe from a pep-rally skit when we all hooted and clapped.
Like Confederate memorials or a still-standing plantation home on tour, segregation academies remain part of the Southern landscape. My alma mater, like most others, now has a small black enrollment and official non-discrimination policies. One of the nation’s top 2019 prospects on National Signing Day in February was Jerrion Ealy, a black student at Jackson Preparatory School, the Mississippi capital city’s most prestigious private school, which was segregated at its 1970 founding and long after. A private school, like the fictional Williamson Prep in Jackson native Angie Thomas’s blockbuster book and namesake film The Hate U Give, would have started as a seg academy, the author told me. She said Williamson isn’t modeled on any particular school, but The Hate U Give “can provide a glimpse into the way those schools operate and the environment they provide for black students.”
When Pillow Academy commemorated the 50th anniversary of its opening a few years ago, there was only a single mention in the 36-page commemorative section in the Greenwood Commonwealth that inched near the white-supremacist reality of Pillow’s start. With mild absurdity, the line noted the all-white school opened when “throughout the South, citizens of both races were concerned about the volatility of forced desegregation.”
The hometown conversation which I’d imagined as a 15-year-old finally took place this year. I asked a black Greenwood contemporary what he had thought of the academy back in our parallel high school days. Sylvester Hoover said Pillow Academy had been open for a few years before he even knew it existed. He was just as unaware of the academy outside the city limits as I was of him. Back then, I’m ashamed to say, Sylvester Hoover would have been only a vaguely personified idea to me, one which my white culture said represented a threat to my education and even my safety.
I left Greenwood at age 18. Hoover didn’t. He runs Delta Blues Legends tours, sharing local history to visitors. One of the main stops on his tour is a beautiful country church, Little Zion Missionary Baptist, built by its members in 1871. It’s Hoover’s lifelong church and the site of the church sanctuary scene in The Help. Bluesman Robert Johnson is buried in the cemetery on the grounds. Hoover’s tour continues to Bryant’s Store in Money, where Emmett Till’s candy purchase led to his murder.
This year, Hoover has a nephew in the senior class at Pillow Academy. Hoover himself would have no problem sending a child there, he said. He’s mulled touching base with the academy to offer to present his local history talk.
“I bet they’d say yes,” he said.
It’s not as if Mississippi and those of us inside it don’t surprise each other from time to time.
Token integration at the still-surviving academies isn’t a shocker. Lip service to racial equality is as much a part of the current South as Whole Foods, Apple and H&M locations. Yet racism obscured can’t be confronted. That’s the problem in leaving my high school alma mater blank on my resume, as most academy alums do, aware of the stakes of its messaging in 2019.
I don’t list my high school on my Facebook profile either. I want to dodge black acquaintances who know that chunk of my past. Yet, in truth, my academy story must be part of any honest account of my life.
For me to shove aside those academy years is indulging in a timeline hideout, a personal-history version of tucking myself behind the entrance of a gated community when it comes to reckoning with race. Privilege permits dodges like that, insulation from the discomfort of reckoning with the racist components in my life and thinking, conscious and unconscious. Yet the price of a sealed unwillingness to expose yourself is the lost opportunity potentially to learn something new. That’s the assertion of the recent book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism by Robin DiAngelo.
My high-school experience clings to my present like goo. The upside? My easy-read past is there whenever I am willing to cringe and take a look. For white people with histories like mine or my cohorts', claiming you’ve never been less than fair-minded and egalitarian is not enough. Hard questions ought to be an obligatory surcharge to our alumni dues.
My Pillow Academy Class of 1974 motto actually zeroed in on the type of self-scrutiny academy alums would do well to consider. Flipping back through our senior yearbook’s pages, I see our motto in lofty typeface, jumping up off the gloss of the page: “God asks no man whether he will accept life. … The only choice is how.”
Like a broken clock, even a seg academy yearbook is right every once in a while.