Justice  /  Origin Story

Cindy Hyde-Smith Is Teaching Us What Segregation Academies Taught Her

The campaign gaffes of Mississippi’s new senator reveal how the past is always present.
Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

The most notable thing about the South’s segregation academies isn’t that they were racially segregated. Racially and economically segregated schools remain across all parts of the United States. What is notable is that taxpayer dollars financed these all-white schools at the cost of simultaneously creating poorly funded all-black public-school systems in the South. To put it simply, as the financial drain of taxpayer dollars from whites attending segregation academies decimated school systems educating black children, black communities, students and teachers paid a terribly high price to ensure that whites were educated with other whites.

Sometimes referred to as “freedom of choice schools,” segregation academies were a private school concept adopted in Mississippi and found across the South in the decade following the Brown v. Board of Education decision. They were conceived as a way to permit white parents to avoid sending their children to schools with black students and a legal way to work around the Brown decision, which did not apply to private schools. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s they flourished in large part because Southern state legislatures allowed white parents to use taxpayer dollars to finance their children’s education. The schools that Senator Hyde-Smith and her daughter attended were both founded in 1970. That was the first year that Mississippi public schools were forced to integrate statewide and not just take token measures.

Segregation academies were privately owned and run but largely financed by tax dollars, at least initially. As happened in other Southern states in the decades following the Brown decision, lawmakers in Mississippi authorized the use of vouchers to allow parents to pay for a percentage of the tuition at these schools. The practice was found unconstitutional in 1970 and, once various appeals were exhausted, banned in 1971. Up until that point, this money allowed white parents to receive up to $240 dollars per year. In Mississippi, depending on the school and the tuition charged there, that amount covered between 50 percent and 90 percent of the total tuition cost. By 1969, of the 49 schools receiving state-provided tuition vouchers in Mississippi, 48 were white-only segregation academies.

These funding schemes were so successful that by 1970, roughly 300,000 students were enrolled in all-white private schools across 11 Southern states, and by 1974, 3,500 academies enrolled 750,000 white children. In Jackson, Miss., alone, white enrollment in the public schools fell by 12,000 students, going from representing more than half of the student body in 1969 to less than a third in 1976. That demographic shift caused a drastic reduction in the funds available to educate the predominantly black children left behind, as tax dollars earmarked for their educations followed white children both to quasi-private segregation academies or to still segregated white public schools.

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