May 25, 2024

Segregation Academies Still Operate Across the South. One Town Grapples With Its Divided Schools.

Segregation Academies Still Operate Across the South. One Town Grapples With Its Divided Schools.

by Jennifer Berry Hawes

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

A mile of Alabama country road, and a history of racism, separate the two schools. At the stop sign between them, even the road’s name changes. Threadgill Road, christened for a civil rights hero, becomes Whiskey Run. Black students take Threadgill to one campus; white students turn off Whiskey Run toward the other.

Both schools are shrinking. Wilcox County, a notch in the swath of old plantation country known as the Black Belt, struggles with declining population — a common scenario across this part of the South. In such places, the existence of two separate school systems can isolate entire communities by race.

The private school, Wilcox Academy, is what researchers call a “segregation academy” due to the historic whiteness of its student body and the timing of its opening. It’s down to 200 students across 12 grades. Housed in a single-story building with beige siding and brown brick veneer, the school offers chapel and core academic classes but not music, theater or band programs.

Down the road, the county’s public high school has more students and course options. Wilcox Central High’s building, with a medical-training lab and competition-sized swimming pool, could house 1,000 students. Instead, it barely draws 400, virtually all of them Black, from across the entire 888-square-mile county.

Divisions like this have long played out across the region. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, declaring public school segregation unconstitutional. As the federal courts repeatedly ruled against the South’s massive resistance, many white people pivoted to a new tactic, one that is lesser known and yet profoundly influences the Black Belt region today: They created a web of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of private schools to educate white children.

Now, 70 years after the Brown decision, ProPublica has found about 300 schools that likely opened as segregation academies in the South are still operating. Some have flourished into pricey college-prep behemoths. Others, like Wilcox Academy, remain modest Christian schools. Many have accepted more nonwhite students over the years, and some now come close to reflecting the communities they serve.

But across Alabama’s 18 Black Belt counties, all of the remaining segregation academies ProPublica identified — about a dozen — are still vastly white, even though the region’s population is majority Black. And in the towns where these schools operate, they often persist as a dividing force.

Even when rural segregation academies offer fewer amenities than their public-school counterparts, white parents are often unwilling to voluntarily send their children to majority-Black public schools. That can be to the detriment of all students, especially in struggling communities where money is tight. It means doubling up on school overhead costs, and fewer students at each school means neither one can offer the robust programs that they could provide if their resources were combined.

“You’re dividing money you don’t have in half,” said Bryan Mann, a University of Kansas professor who studies school segregation and school choice.

And soon, far more tax dollars will be flowing into private schools. Republican lawmakers are adopting plans for massive infusions of state money to help thousands more students who want to attend them. It’s part of a movement barreling across the country, particularly the Southeast — where, in Black Belt counties like Wilcox, a segregation academy may be the only nearby private school option.

In March, Alabama’s Republican Gov. Kay Ivey, who is from Wilcox County, signed the CHOOSE Act. It creates a program of voucher-like education savings accounts and directs the state legislature to devote no less than $100 million a year to fund them. Students can apply for up to $7,000 a year to pay for private school tuition, among other costs.

Since the start of 2023, North Carolina, Arkansas and Florida have joined Alabama in opening voucher-style programs to all students over the coming years, as opposed to limiting them to lower-income students or those in low-performing schools. South Carolina created one that extends to middle-income and some upper-income families. Georgia adopted its own for children in low-performing public schools. Governors in Texas and Tennessee pledged to continue similar fights next year.

To Alabama native Steve Suitts, history is repeating.

After the Brown decision, Southern legislatures provided state money to help white students flee to the new academies. Alabama was among the first states to do so, said Suitts, a historian and author of “Overturning Brown: The Segregationist Legacy of the Modern School Choice Movement.” Even the language used — framing the movement as parents’ right to “freedom” and “private school choice” — was the same then as it is now.

“I cannot see how there will be any difference,” Suitts said of recent laws. He dubbed Alabama’s new voucher-style program the Segregation Academy Rescue Act.

Republican lawmakers strongly disagree. They argue that today Black and white students alike can use the money to attend private schools. The new law bars participating schools from discriminating based on race, though it does allow them to choose which applicants they want to admit.

During House debate earlier this year, Republican state Rep. Danny Garrett, the education budget chair, heard many Black legislators argue that the law is about race, its aim to bolster segregation. “Of course, neither of these statements are true,” he told them.

In Camden, the pastoral county seat of Wilcox, Black and white residents said they would like to see their children schooled together. But after so long apart, they aren’t sure how to best do that.

High school juniors Jazmyne Posey and Samantha Cook hadn’t met until they started working at Black Belt Treasures, a nonprofit in downtown Camden that sells the wares of hundreds of Black Belt artists.

On the surface, the teenagers appear to have little in common. Jazmyne is Black; Samantha is white. Jazmyne likes rap and hip-hop; Samantha likes indie pop. Jazmyne goes to the public school; Samantha goes to Wilcox Academy.

But they soon bonded over similar life experiences and problems, both teenagers navigating high school relationships. They wonder what it would be like to be in class together. Would their friends get along?

Once, when they hadn’t worked together for a while, Jazmyne missed talking to Samantha. “I caught word that she said she missed me too,” she said.

Samantha has watched her class at Wilcox Academy shrink from 22 to 13 students. She likes her writing classes but wishes the school offered more, especially a theater program. “I definitely would have been a theater kid,” she said. One day, she hopes to join her sister in Atlanta: “There’s so many different cultures, so many people to meet.”

Jazmyne’s grandmother, who died this spring, attended the public high school a few years after desegregation. By then, most white students had left for the new academies. Although racism caused segregation, Jazmyne doesn’t think it’s the cause of the ongoing divisions.

“Nobody around here is really racist,” she said. “We just haven’t come together. We’ve been doing our own thing all the time.”

Roots of Division


Sheryl Threadgill-Matthews grew up immersed in the urgency and hope of the Civil Rights Movement. Her father was a prominent activist and chaplain of Camden Academy, a private Presbyterian school for Black children. Her mother taught at the school. The entire family lived, learned and worshiped on the campus, perched atop a grassy knoll called Hangman’s Hill.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of her father’s college classmates, spoke at commencement in 1954. The grounds soon became a hub for staging civil rights marches and boycotts — landing it in the crosshairs of white school officials.

In 1965, the Wilcox County school board exercised eminent domain to take over the property. They kept the school open for several more years but evicted the Threadgills from their home and forced her father and his parishioners to tear down the school’s church.

She witnessed the dismantling. Someone burned a cross in their yard.

The family pressed forward. A year later, when she was a freshman, Threadgill-Matthews arrived at Wilcox County High, then a public school for white children. It was Sept. 23, 1966, and she would become one of the first nine Black students to cross the county’s racial line that day.

Grand white columns flanked the front door to the red brick building. She was grateful that her father walked her inside. Even after he left, the morning passed quietly. But it was a fleeting relief. Over the coming months, students rammed her desk with their chairs. They ripped her books apart. They brushed chalk dust into her hair. They smacked her head with crutches.

One day in science class, a boy sneered: “Nigger, if you make more than me on the test, I’m gonna kill you.” When she did so, he hurled something at her head so hard that she fell unconscious in the hallway.

She endured for the school year, then pleaded to return to Camden Academy. So did most of the students who’d come with her.

By then, white families across the South had launched the segregation academy movement.

In Alabama, it ramped up after a federal court ordered Tuskegee High School to desegregate. White parents scrambled to open a segregation academy, which Gov. George Wallace soon toured. He urged more like it to open — and called on state lawmakers to help.

In 1965, the state’s legislature approved $3.75 million — worth about $36 million today — to fund tuition grants that paid for students “to attend private schools rather than go to public school classes with Negroes,” the Alabama Journal reported.

Six other Southern states adopted similar programs, which “enabled the largest growth of private schools in the South’s history,” Suitts wrote in the journal Southern Spaces.

Across the old Confederacy, newspaper headlines announced private schools opening with names like Robert E. Lee Academy, Wade Hampton Academy, Jefferson Davis Academy. The Rebels were a favored mascot.

In March 1970, Camden’s local newspaper reported, “Promoters of additional private school facilities in Wilcox County got a shot in the arm this week.” The federal government had filed a plan for desegregating the local schools.

“The action is expected by many to spur interest in the construction of new private school facilities at Camden and Pine Hill,” the article said.

Two weeks later, another headline reported: “Private School Plan Shaping Up.” The story said 119 families in Wilcox had formed a new foundation, voted to start a private school, and secured 16 acres of land in Camden. It was the birth of Wilcox Academy.

Despite the obvious implications of the timing, many white people across the South argued their motives for embracing the new academies weren’t racist. Publicly, they cited “choice,” “freedom” and higher-quality (often Christian) education.

But those sentiments were hard to square with the fact that many academies opened hastily, often in people’s homes, churches or vacant buildings. Researchers who visited some of the new schools in the 1970s wrote that most were “dilapidated, worn, a little dirty, short on supplies and materials, cramped, offering few opportunities for enrichment.”

Wilcox Academy, however, enjoyed substantial financial support from the start. When it opened in September 1970, it was “generally regarded to be one of the most beautiful and well-equipped new schools in the area,” the Wilcox Progressive Era newspaper reported.

The nearby public school started the year with half the students it had the year before. Just two years later, Wilcox County public schools enrolled 3,733 Black students and only 109 white ones.

Now five decades later, only a handful of white students are enrolled.

Under drizzly clouds one day this spring, Threadgill-Matthews accelerated up the grassy knoll where Camden Academy once stood. With her 5-year-old great-nephew in the back seat, she approached J.E. Hobbs Elementary, a public school that now operates on the academy’s former campus in a hodgepodge of structures. Her nephew’s classroom was to one side in a low-slung building, painted blue with sunshine-yellow doors.

On her other side, a timeworn sidewalk leads to nothing but a stand of pine trees. Before the school district evicted her family and condemned it, their home stood in that spot.

Her nephew slipped from the car with his Spiderman backpack, gave her a hug, and headed into a classroom filled with Black children — just as she once did on this campus.

Now 71, she tries not to dwell on the disappointment. So little has changed since Brown v. Board, or the day when she and other Black children made history and suffered terribly for it.

“It is really heartbreaking,” she said.

Tools of Resistance


Several years ago, an Auburn University history student reached out to Threadgill-Matthews, hoping to interview her for a master’s thesis. Amberly Sheffield had taught at Wilcox Academy, an experience that left her so intrigued by the school and its origins that she was devoting her thesis to the topic of segregation academies.

Sheffield grew up in the early 2000s in a neighboring county. Her hometown was down to 1,800 people. Despite the small population, she said, two segregation academies operated within a 20-minute drive of her house.

Sheffield didn’t go to either of them. Although she is white, her parents chose the public high school. About 70% of her classmates were Black.

She liked it there. An honors student and cheerleader, she had Black and white teachers. She hung out with a mix of friends and got to learn about their different backgrounds. So she often wondered: Why did so many other white parents pay to send their kids to the academies?

She decided to find out.

In 2019, fresh off earning her bachelor’s degree, she landed a job teaching high school history at Wilcox Academy. She moved to Camden, 40 miles south of Selma, and rented an old plantation house.

Heading into downtown, she saw attorneys, restaurants and clothing boutiques operating from rows of storefronts adorned with flower boxes. At one of the three stop lights, she passed the antebellum red brick county courthouse. Down the road, the white paint peeled on Antioch Baptist Church, where the KKK had once harassed congregants and a white man shot a Black man dead as people gathered for a funeral.

On her first day at work, Sheffield headed into the academy’s building, which was flanked by athletic fields and stands of trees. Although the county is more than two-thirds Black, the classrooms inside bustled with white children and teachers. The only Black staff she saw were two custodians.

It felt like 1970, the year the school opened.

As she got to know her students, she probed: Why didn’t they go to the public schools? She expected them to cite the academy’s Christian education or the alumni in their family. And some did.

Others figured Wilcox Academy’s academics were better. But it was hard to know. Unlike the public schools, private schools don’t have to release test scores that would allow for comparisons.

To her surprise, many of her students spoke of fear. The public schools were dangerous, they said. They might get shot. They didn’t say it was because the students there are Black, “but that was the sense I got,” Sheffield said.

She realized her students moved in bubbles of whiteness. Virtually all of their friends were white. Their parents’ friends were white. And they were never mentored or disciplined by Black teachers.

By then, Alabama was several years into a tuition scholarship program for lower-income families that was used mostly by Black students and could have helped more African American families apply to mostly white private schools. But Wilcox Academy has chosen not to participate.

Nor have many of the segregation academies in neighboring counties, state records indicate. Private schools in Alabama whose student bodies are more than 94% white have been least likely to opt in, one researcher found.

Wilcox Academy’s principal did not respond to ProPublica’s multiple emails and calls seeking to discuss the academy’s impact on local school segregation, why it doesn’t participate in the existing tuition-grant program and whether it will participate in the new program.

Sheffield concluded that many families still chose the academy due to race — the comfort of their own, discomfort with another — even if they didn’t recognize it as such.

She stayed for one school year, then got to work on her master’s degree. (She’s now a doctoral student at the University of Mississippi studying segregation academies.)

In her master’s thesis, she tracked the formation of these schools across Alabama, particularly “a tidal wave” of openings in 1970. That fall alone, 23 sprang up across the state, including Wilcox Academy. By 1978, public school enrollment in seven Black Belt counties — including Wilcox — was more than 90% Black.

“These segregation academies proved to be white resisters’ most successful tool of resistance,” Sheffield wrote.

The Persistence of Division


In small towns like Camden, where everyone could know one another well, people often don’t. It’s been that way since white settlers arrived to bankroll new cotton plantations. They brought so many enslaved laborers that the county became, and remains, predominantly Black.

Descendants of both enslavers and the enslaved still share the community. But in so many ways, they remain separated. Because they go to school apart and always have, only a few white children ride the buses to school with Black peers. Black and white parents rarely build friendships at high school football games or PTA meetings. They don’t often carpool or invite each other over for a meal.

Wilcox County Superintendent André Saulsberry has lived this. He graduated from the public schools he now leads. “Will we ever know each other as people here?” he asked. “I’m not sure.”

He noted that it’s difficult to imagine how to create an integrated school system where one has never existed. Black and white residents in Willcox still eye each other across a chasm formed by centuries of history.

“We don’t trust one another because we are so separate,” he said.

Two years ago, some of the county’s mostly white large landowners got Alabama legislators to derail the county and school board’s request to bring a property tax increase to a local vote. Half of the money would have gone to the nearly all-Black schools, including a new building for the elementary school Threadgill-Matthews’ nephew attends. Its aging structures have suffered two fires.

People who don’t send their children to public schools can lack a reason to invest in them, Black residents here lamented. Many wonder how Wilcox County would have fared if, instead of investing in the academies, white families had devoted their time and resources to the public schools.

“If people are together, they will understand each other in more ways — and trust more,” Saulsberry said. “And we won’t continue to die as a county.”

But some places in Camden have begun to draw Black and white people together in ways that foster deep relationships. One is Black Belt Treasures, where employees coordinate arts programs for public and private school students. They make a point of welcoming all comers. A Black artist, Betty Anderson, who runs a small civil rights museum across the street, has become close friends with the white women who work there.

One recent day, two of those women stood in the gallery judging a public school’s art poster contest. Both were active with a local racial reconciliation group that halted during the early days of COVID-19. Both want the community to come together more.

Both also sent their children to Wilcox Academy. The decision, they said, wasn’t easy or simple.

One of them, Vera Spinks, knows that people wonder: Why not just send your kids to the public schools?

“It’s not as cut-and-dried,” she said.

The women vehemently deny the decision had to do with race. The schools had long been divided by the time they faced the decision of where to enroll their children. Both are Christians and said the academy’s religious education was a key factor, along with its small class sizes and personal attention from teachers.

Strong family ties also bond people to the academy. Kristin Law, the other woman working with Spinks at the gallery that day, is an alumna herself. “You now have three and four generations of students that have gone to the school,” she said. “It’s become more about school pride or tradition.”

Then there is the tremendous sweat equity parents put into the school. There’s almost always fundraising underway. The academy’s annual turkey hunt that raises money for the school dates back to 1971. Parents and students create, haul, assemble and gather donations for an annual prom extravaganza. The tradition has been passed down for 40 years.

Both women also said they are glad to see more Black and other nonwhite students at the school. “We’re ready for coming together,” Law said. “How do we do that?”

Crossing the Broken Bridge

Integration may yet come to places like Wilcox County — though not in the public schools.

Alabama’s new school-choice program will be open to most of its students in January 2025 and to all students in 2027. Under Alabama’s existing tuition-scholarship program, about 60% of students who have received the money in recent years have been Black. The new program, which will open the door to wealthier families, could fund more than four times as many students.

In places like Wilcox and many other Black Belt counties, the largest pool of potential new private school enrollees is Black children.

In 2019, the year Sheffield arrived there, Wilcox Academy hired Michael Woods, its first Black coach, to revitalize the basketball program. Four years into the job, he now wrestles with the thorny implications of the new voucher opportunities.

Black children still account for barely 5% of students in more than half the schools in the South that likely opened as segregation academies. That leaves white parents and students still firmly in control, even in majority-Black communities. Now these academies will confront an important question: If more Black students apply, how many will white leaders accept?

Woods grew up in Camden’s public schools and describes the “broken bridge” between the two communities. He never imagined that he’d one day work at the academy and was surprised when its leaders reached out to him. He arrived to see two Black students and no Black teachers.

But he felt welcome enough that he brought his niece and nephew to the academy, along with another Black student. Some have told him about hearing racially insensitive comments but nothing he considers outright racism.

“We are still set in those old-time ways,” he said. “But God has made it better, and it’s time to let it go.”

He wants Black children to have the same opportunities that white kids have long enjoyed. But for them to have a real choice, they need to feel valued at the academy. Woods said he’s told the staff, “We still have to give something to show these kids that we appreciate them to get them there to the school.”

Saulsberry, the superintendent, doesn’t expect many to apply regardless. “I’m not sure how comfortable, in some cases, it will be if the Black child went there.”

Given that few public school students score at the proficient level on math or reading assessments, leaders there know the district’s standardized test results could be used against it. But Saulsberry contends his schools provide far more than test scores can capture.

His teachers must be certified, unlike at some private schools. Students at the public high school also can become certified nursing assistants, patient care technicians, medication assistants, welders, brick masons and heavy equipment operators. They can get certified to work in forestry. Plumbing is coming in the fall.

His students also can get mental health care, special education services, bus services and free meals — which few area academies offer.

“We try to look at the total child, not just the academic side,” Saulsberry said.

Public school leaders know they will have to do more to sell strengths like these. Wilcox Central High Assistant Principal Donald Carter expects private schools to follow the college football playbook: “They’ll be out to recruit now.”

When Woods coaches the academy’s teams, the stands in the gymnasium fill with mostly white parents. The other teams are mostly or entirely white as well. He wonders how it would feel if more Black families filled those seats.

Woods said that he fields almost daily phone calls from Black parents. “A lot of parents I have talked to want their kids in a private school,” he said. “But they just couldn’t afford it.” Now, in cautiously curious tones, they ask a question that echoes back 70 years: How would “the white school” treat their children?


How We Counted Segregation Academies


To identify schools that likely opened as segregation academies, ProPublica adapted existing research using data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Private School Universe Survey to identify K-12 schools that were founded in the South between 1954 and 1976 and were more than 90% white as recently as 1993-1995, the earliest years for which student demographic data is available. We also filtered out schools with certain unique focuses, such as special education, or that were opened around the same time for reasons that may not have primarily been due to desegregation — many Catholic schools, for example, met this criteria. To determine which schools were still operating, we compared those schools to the most recent Private School Universe Survey data, from 2021 to 2022. Our estimates may be an undercount, since data about private school demographics was not collected until 1993, almost two decades after desegregation ended, and because not all private schools respond to the survey. To determine which schools were both still operating and still disproportionately white, we compared their demographics data to U.S. Census Bureau estimates for the counties in which each school was located.