In her role as a journalist and essayist, Ellen Ann Fentress writes about the South. She digs deep into the politics and culture of the America that she knows best, looking for the larger truths that lie beneath the surface of the stories. Fentress has focused much of her writing in recent years on the many ways in which the region’s past continues to seep into and affect its present.
So, it stands to reason that when the Jackson Free Press broke the story that U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith was a graduate of a now-closed segregation academy and sent her daughter to Brookhaven Academy, Fentress decided to build on the conversation that now-MFP senior reporter Ashton Pittman started nationally with his reporting. After all, Fentress is a seg-academy graduate herself.
The term segregation academy refers to whites-only private schools that were founded by white parents of a community, usually in the 1960s and early 1970s in the wake of forced public-school integration, as a way to avoid sending their children to integrated schools. Many of the schools initially relied on public funds and resources and used openly racist symbols, mascots and rhetoric. The schools also drew resources out of public schools as they were integrating, as well as hurt the economy of communities and towns as white families fled to other areas to avoid sending their children to integrated schools.
Her seg-academy past at Pillow Academy near Greenwood, Miss., had become a part of Fentress’ story that she often found herself trying to gloss over or avoid altogether. The Hyde-Smith story, along with an inspiring comment from Mississippi author Kiese Laymon at a book discussion, prompted Fentress to claim her uncomfortable personal history and look more closely at it.
The ensuing reflection resulted in an essay, published in The Bitter Southerner, about her experience attending a segregation academy and the ways that experience shaped her. After the essay’s publication, Fentress received emails from other seg-academy graduates sharing their stories, and as a result, The Admissions Project/Academy Stories was born.
The Admissions Project/Academy Stories is an online platform to document first-person accounts of experiences in the South’s whites-only academies. Telling the history of these schools and their impact, however, is only the first stage. Fentress’ vision for the project extends beyond the history to exploring solutions for both the individuals and communities affected.
Tune in to MFP Live Thursday, July 28, at 6 p.m. on MFP’s Facebook page or YouTube channel to hear Ellen Ann Fentress discuss what she’s learned from The Admissions Project/Academy Stories, her plans for its future and much more facts about segregation academies with Donna Ladd and Kimberly Griffin.
This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and sources fact-checking the included information to [email protected] We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.