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

"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.

Presented by

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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