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The Stories of “Segregation Academies,” as Told by the White Students Who Attended Them

Last year, Mississippi’s Jackson Free Press unearthed a photograph of a young cheerleader, Cindy Hyde-Smith, one of a group of girls surrounding a “Rebel” mascot holding a Confederate battle flag. The photo came from a 1975 yearbook from Lawrence County Academy, the high school the U.S. senator—then engaged in a reelection campaign—once attended. Lawrence was founded as a segregation academy—one of thousands of private schools white Southerners in 11 states started after the Brown v. Board decision as a way of keeping their kids away from their black peers. Later, Hyde-Smith enrolled her own daughter at another school that was first founded as a “seg academy.”

Hyde-Smith, a Republican, won her runoff election and secured her seat despite this revelation (and despite other racist gaffes committed in the course of her campaign). The episode made journalist and Mississippi resident Ellen Ann Fentress, who graduated from Pillow Academy, a segregation academy near Greenwood, think about the many alumni of such schools who surrounded her. Fentress said in an interview that she heard author Kiese Laymon give a talk at a bookstore in Jackson after photos of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s racist 1984 yearbook page surfaced in early 2019. “Laymon said, ‘How come is it when there are these photos of white people in blackface, everybody says, ‘You know, that’s not me’?” she recalled. “He said, ‘You know what I want? I want to see a white person who was in one of these photos say, ‘Yes, this is me, and this is what I was thinking.’ ”

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