By Ellen Ann Fentress . Pillow Academy, Class of 1974
A lot of us watched the national interest in a Jackson Free Press story last fall on how U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith had graduated from an all-white segregation academy in Mississippi in 1977. The New York Times, Politico and NBC stepped in to cover the revelation as well. Cindy Hyde-Smith wasn’t exactly alone, of course.
Estimates are that there are 500,000 to 750,000 of us who graduated from academies like hers across 11 southern states, private schools rushed into being to keep white children from taking part in the integration of southern schools in the region.
It’s history. It’s my history, one I’ve preferred to omit from my resume to dodge the discomfort it packs in 2019.Yet it’s time to talk about our formation in those academies in the same way that it’s time to confront the rest of the spectrum of white supremacist history in the regional DNA.
The Civil War
We’ve come to confront the true reason for the Civil War and the need to let go of the romanticized version of antebellum life that somehow omitted the crime of slavery. The same work has brought on the recognition of the pain bound into the symbolism of the Confederate flag and, by its inclusion, the incendiary Mississippi state flag too.
Confronting our schooling in whites-only academies sits on the same truth telling spectrum. Along with being crucial U.S. history, it’s personal history.
For me, a second timer went off in the words of author Kiese Laymon a few months ago at Lemuria Books in Jackson. He pointed to the news coverage of past racist dress up by Virginia governor Ralph Northam and others. Why all the sputtering denial about what happened before, Laymon asked the audience. “I want to see a white person say “Yeah, that was me. And this is what was going on in my head….’”
So I tried. I wrote about my academy years near Greenwood, Mississippi for the online journal Bitter Southerner in June. I had some positive feedback, while others from the academy world saw my words as an act of betrayal. A few pointed out my flaws as a messenger, which strikes me as both completely true and as the first impulse of someone who’d rather quash an uncomfortable conversation before it starts. The topic touched a nerve, however. At last count, the piece Are You a Seg Academy Alum, Too? Let’s Talk has drawn over 10,000 readers.
The Academy Stories website is an effort to widen the conversation. I’m grateful to the Mississippi Humanities Council for supporting the idea. Also thanks to project scholar Dave Tell, whose research centers on the ways people confront history, and to website builder Talamieka Brice.
In the next three months, The Academy Stories hopes to publish scores of first-person accounts of segregation academy alums. The hope is that the site becomes a primary document of history—not a proud narrative but one that’s essential U.S. history. That’s crucial, in fact. The project will be a failure if it stops as merely an exercise in negative nostalgia. What’s essential is follow up. What do we do now as a result of that past? What can affected communities do? The Academy Stories hopes to explore real and constructive follow up to the continued impact of the academy movement. But the first task will be to tell our stories. Please send yours.
For whatever it’s worth, here’s mine:
Ellen Ann Fentress is a journalist, filmmaker and teacher in Jackson, Mississippi. She is editor of The Academy Stories project.