As kids, they were thrown into “segregation academies” in the South—private all-white schools where parents could send their children to avoid the integration of public schools, and where kids were, as one put it, “conscientiously and misguidedly furnished with an unbending white universe.”
At least 3,000 of these schools opened in the South in the early 1970s. By 1975, as many as 750,000 white students were being what they thought was “educated” there. Now, graduates of those all-white schools are telling stories about the resounding racism they learned—and the decades that some have spent unlearning or trying to unlearn it. A new website, TheAcademyStories.com, is posting their stories in hopes of striking a chord with other people raised with and steeped in white supremacist ideologies who are trying to critically dismantle and understand their own hate.
“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,” wrote Ellen Ann Fentress, a longtime journalist whose writing has appeared in the New York Times, and a documentary filmmaker who is spearheading the project with support from the Mississippi Humanities Council.
Fentress told me that some graduates of the academies are opening up about their years through self-reflection, while others say they wish she and outlets like the Jackson Free Press had never shed a spotlight on the schools. “To some of them, it looks like a personal attack on parents and faculty,” said Fentress, who posted the first essays and a call for submissions last week.
“This isn’t a proud narrative, but it’s essential U.S. history that shapes how both towns and individuals live their lives now,” as well as how structures and institutions continue to operate, Fentress said. “The conversation is unsettling” but necessary.
On the website’s first day, Fentress she got half a dozen new writers. Author and journalist Kristen Green, an early contributor, wrote that her all-white Virginia academy had “normalized and centered whiteness for me in my formative years.” For decades afterward, she said, “I didn’t have the skill set to make friends with people who looked different than me, to report knowledgeable stories about people of color” as a journalist.
Some graduates, such as Jackson, Mississippi, lawyer Lynn Watkins, have spent their lives trying to fight the racial hate that created their schools. “From the tenth grade forward, I attended and ultimately graduated from a white Citizens’ Council School; at one time, it was reportedly the largest private school system in the country,” Watkins wrote, describing her eventual work in journalism and law to expose the very systems she grew up benefitting from. “Later, as a journalist and later still as a lawyer, I learned the real lessons of history.”