In Southern Towns, 'Segregation Academies' Are Still Going Strong

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In the 1960s and '70s, towns across the South created inexpensive private schools to keep white students from having to mix with black. Many remain open, the communities around them as divided as ever.  

race-mix.jpgOpponents of integration protest at the Arkansas State Capitol on August 12, 1959. (Arkansas History Commission)

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.

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Sarah Carr is a contributing editor at The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University, and author of the book Hope Against Hope.

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