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. 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 report.