My Life in a Racist Segregation Academy

I’ll confess that until today’s news cycle, I had never in my life heard the term “segregation academy.” But it’s in the news today, as part of the arc of Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s (R-Jim Crow) lifetime of racism, culminating in a series of breathtakingly racist missteps ahead of tomorrow’s runoff election for her U.S. Senate seat. Over the weekend, the Jackson Free Press broke the story of Hyde-Smith having attended such a school, which were set up over Christmas break of the 1969-70 school year as “private schools” intended explicitly to avoid a U.S. Supreme Court desegregation order. Such schools persist throughout the South; Hyde-Smith sent her daughter to one, too. And the overt racism taught and cultivated in such schools tends to last a lifetime. Get ’em young.

Well, sometimes. In my case, the lessons didn’t stick very well.

In November 1969, at age nine, my parents moved me from Los Angeles to Columbia, South Carolina, and made the bewildering (until later in life, when I came to realize how racist they were) decision to enroll me in a private school that was only in its third year of operation – very much a “segregation academy.” The kids weren’t all bad – though they did tend to reflect the biases of their parents. (When President Nixon came to town, the whole school got the day off so that we could go see the Great Man.) The ’60s never happened in Hammond Academy’s curricula, and the War Of Northern Aggression (commonly known elsewhere as the Civil War) was an ongoing, century-plus grievance, taught in painstaking detail except for the bit about ending slavery.

As a kid from L.A., none of this made sense to me, but my “education” came quickly. I remarked to a classmate that I didn’t understand what the difference was supposed to be between white people and black people, a heretical comment that spread like wildfire. Eventually, my “teacher” decided to punish the heresy by having me stand up and repeat my comment before the entire class, an exercise in shaming which ensured my ostracization (as a “Yankee,” because California, presumably, was “Up North” somewhere) for the entire four years I was forced by my parents to attend that cesspool.

The purpose of Hammond Academy – yes, it still exists, and actually sort of integrated a few years ago – wasn’t any secret in the early ’70s. For starters, its namesake, James H. Hammond, was one of the leading antebellum advocates for slavery, and thus a segregationist hero. I remember a local newspaper column attempting to answer a black family’s query as to whether my school would accept their child, and the school spokesperson explaining that, why, heavens no, Hammond wasn’t segregated – they just hadn’t had any black applicants who could meet their high academic standards.

This was hilariously implausible not just for the unabashed racism of much of the school’s leadership, which blew up publicly a few years later when the IRS revoked its tax-exempt status. (Wikipedia: “In 1972, Hammond Academy’s tax exemption was revoked by the IRS when it refused to document that it had a racially nondiscriminatory admissions policy. In 1976, a school administrator told John Egerton the school did not want the tax exemption because the school was “better off without negroes.” The administrator further opined that “segregation is coming back to this country” because it is a “more natural condition.””)

It was also absurd due to the idea that somehow a school operating almost entirely out of mobile trailers was offering any kind of rigorous education. I got in immediate trouble soon after arriving for declaring that the principal wasn’t qualified to be a janitor at my old L.A. public school. The truth hurts.

This is exactly the kind of environment that shaped Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, and a lot of other white Southerners of our age. Of course, the smarter among them realized decades ago that the South’s well-earned reputation for bigotry, oppression, and racial violence comes with a huge economic cost. It’s a major reason why states like Mississippi, South Carolina, and other mostly rural recesses of the Deep South remain poor – and why so much effort has gone into rebranding the “New South” in booming cities like Atlanta, Charlotte, and Nashville. A lot of people have moved into these areas from other parts of the country, and world, in the intervening decades. The political power in such cities is often multiracial, but the wealth is largely still in White hands. Not everyone who attended segregation academies grew up to become a segregationist – you’re hearing terms like “embarrassing” being used to describe Hyde-Smith’s views, which is undoubtedly true for some Mississippians. Other – white – Mississippians are likely bewildered by what all the fuss is about.

By the beginning of ninth grade, I was refusing to attend dear old Hammond, a standoff that was resolved only when my father took a job in the Detroit area and we moved, again. (There would be two more family moves, to Chicago and then Memphis, by the time I finished high school.) I despised South Carolina and was elated to leave. Six years later, as a young adult, I returned to visit – and was enraged to discover that a whole segment of the population had been hidden from me, one far more interesting, and seemingly principled, than the assholes I’d been immersed among.

I’ve long felt that those years in South Carolina were critical for my development – that I got most of my core values by negative example, not just from my parents (another long story), but the hypocritically pious and hate-filled kids, and adults, at Hammond. I didn’t ever want to be like them.

At least one U.S. Senator does. My guess is that Mississippi’s runoff election tomorrow won’t be all that close. People with backgrounds and values like Sen. Hyde-Smith just aren’t embarrassing enough to enough white rural Southerners. Not yet.

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