By Dave Tell Project Scholar
Segregation academies pulled an estimated 750,000 white school children from public schools. This massive exodus inflicted harm in every corner. As education was resegregated, public schools—now de facto black schools—lost materials and, eventually, funding.
Tax-funded textbooks were carried by white students to private schools, and it is surely no coincidence that segregation academies were born (and thrived) in the Mississippi Delta, a region in which the underfunding of public education is legendary.
Public schools in the Delta are filled with teachers who can’t afford to live without a roommate, with textbooks that are perpetually out of date, with facilities that pose a threat to the well-being of occupants, with computers that don’t work, and with students whose education is valued less than it would be in virtually any other place in the country. Once the white students were gone, there was simply no political will to fund public education.
The Whole Story
The plight of public schools, however, is only half the story. The white students, too, have been harmed by their extraction from a momentarily integrated world. To be sure, the harm is of a different, less urgent nature. The academies were spared the vitriolic underfunding of legislators and were, in many cases, the beneficiaries of consistent financial investment.
But confined to their charmed world of modern facilities and up-to-date textbooks, the 750,000 white students lost something of enduring value: the chance to come up in a world characterized by diversity.
As Ellen Ann Fentress has written in The Bitter Southerner, academy students were “conscientiously and misguidedly furnished [with] an unbending white universe.” The thinking bred in such a culture, she fears, may linger still.
One of the more concrete manifestations of the lingering influence of the artificial white universe may be a loss of historical memory. Although Fentress’s alma matter Pillow Academy is just miles removed from the site where Emmett Till was lynched in 1955, she never learned the story in school. NBC landed a plane in the region every day for a week to carry the news of Till’s murder around the world. But inside the walls of Pillow Academy there was not a word about the murder.
Far from An Oversight
This was not an oversight. One of Pillow Academy’s funders was Ray Tribble.[i] By the time the academy opened in 1966, Tribble was eleven years removed from his participation on the jury that voted unanimously to acquit Till murderers Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam. Fifteen years after the academy opened, Tribble’s family bought Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, the site where Till whistled at Carolyn Bryant.[ii] On their watch, the iconic grocery store has crumbled: the roof has fallen in, the interior floors have collapsed, the north wall is half gone, and the store is now supported by little more than the vines that have penetrated the remaining bricks. The Tribble family has refused several offers from buyers interested in using the site to commemorate the murder.
The stakes of such ignorance is high. Rutgers historian John Gillis writes that memory “is not something we think about; it is something we think through.” The stories we tell about our past are powerful resources for making sense of the present. Fentress and the 749,999 other students who were dropped into an artificial white world were robbed of these resources. Worse, they were given a past in the which the world was “unbendingly white.” It is not hard to imagine how students thus robbed of American history would process our own racially charged moment.
In fact, we don’t need to imagine. On July 25, 2019—Emmett Till’s 78th birthday— ProPublica/The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting published a picture of well-armed fraternity brothers posed triumphantly in front of the bullet-riddled sign marking the spot where Till’s body was pulled from the water. The faces are smiling, the weapons are visible, and the sign is conspicuously damaged, all of which make the photograph read as a racist trophy shot—as if the boys were posed with their weapons above a twelve-point buck.
All three boys are products of private, majority-white schools surrounded by majority-black populations. All of these schools were founded between 1964 and 1965 in the wake of integration movements. One of them was born as a segregation academy.
It is of course impossible to prove a causal relationship between the largely segregated education of these three boys and their act of staggering racial insensitivity (if not outright racial terror). But it is easy to see that glorying in the defacement of a civil rights marker is possible only for students whose education gave them no sense of the trauma of the murder or the stakes of the movement. It is possible only for boys whose education failed them completely in a moment they needed it most.
How would students such as these process our Black Lives Matter moment? Without thinking through the story of Till’s lynching, it would be all too easy to dismiss the murders of Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown as exceptions, the products of bad apples or individual racists. Until twenty-first century murders are seen in the light of Till’s murder, the institutionally cultivated precarity of black life and its often-lethal consequences will remain hidden from view. Memory is not something we think about, it is something we think through.
The Academy Stories is the first organized attempt to reflect on the enduring harm resulting from the imposition of an “unbending white universe.” It is a deeply needed project. If the segregation academies robbed students of resources for making sense of our times, telling the stories of the academy experience may be a form of belated redress. The Academy Stories has the potential to undo some of the work of the academies.
[i] Richard Rubin, The Confederacy of Silence: A True Tale of a New Old South (New York: Atria Books, 2002), 180.
[ii] Dave Tell, Remembering Emmett Till (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), chapter 4.
Dr. Dave Tell is Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas. He is the author of Remembering Emmett Till (University of Chicago Press, 2019) and a co-director of the Emmett Till Memory Project in Sumner, Mississippi.