Stories are a universal way to relate and understand each other better. And, all of us have school stories. Ellen Ann Fentress knows this firsthand as a storyteller, author and documentarian. Sharing her own story, in fact, about her experience attending a segregation academy in the 1970s has brought others to remember and tell their own story, too.
These academies were private schools that began to appear as a way for white parents to avoid the ramifications of integration – sending their children to school with black children. There are an estimated 750,000 attendees of these schools across 11 southern states. The project cataloging the subsequent memories of so many in the South during that time has evolved to become The Admissions Project – a collection of interviews, a website with written stories and oral histories of others in school under the shadow of integration.
“Along with the rest of the country, Mississippi has come to recognize that we can’t thrive in the future while suppressing the past,” said Fentress. “For Mississippi, that means understanding our racial history most of all. The Admissions Project is about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable in order to grow. It matters to me that this is a project in which we tell our own stories in our own voices. This is no outside helicopter project, but our own home-led story sharing.”
Fentress says her work, which is supported through the Eyes of Mississippi Fund at the Community Foundation for Mississippi, would not have been possible without the underlying infrastructure at CFM. “We see to our projects, and as a qualified 501c3 non-profit, CFM supervises our finances,” she said. “To launch this project, working under CFM’s nonprofit structure was essential. Supporters expect and deserve a tax-deductible donor framework, particularly in Mississippi where giving resources are always stretched.”
From the Beginning
In 2019, after publishing a Bitter Southerner essay on coming to terms with her white schooling, Fentress received a flood of emails – both positive and negative – about their own reckoning with their past academy experiences. “I realized many in my generation wanted a public space to talk about the imprint of our defiant all-white educations, a key chapter of American history,” she said.
With the help of the Mississippi Humanities Council, a grant helped her launch the online platform – the Academy Stories. Well-known authors who were also segregation academy alumni wrote accounts for the launch, including Steve Yarborough, Alan Huffman and Kristen Green. Dozens more followed along with coverage from the Washington Post, Slate, Mother Jones, Forbes and the Hechinger Report. As more stories unfolded, a ripple effect happened. The more stories were told, the more others also remembered and wanted to share, too.
“At a moment when we are more aware than ever of our past failures to pursue social justice, it seems essential to me that we tell the stories of the segregation academies alongside the more positive stories of integration,” said Steve Yarbrough, discussing the project. “These narratives are timely and necessary.”
In 2020, an additional MHC grant helped Fentress expand her work to those who remained in public schools post-integration. Though unacknowledged initially, the burden of court-ordered integration frequently fell on Black students and teachers to assimilate into little-changed white spaces. Essays came in from nationally regarded writers like Ralph Eubanks, Margaret McMullan, Paulette Boudreaux and Teresa Nicholas. With the collection of memories growing, the work became known as The Admissions Project.
“Perhaps the most unfortunate thing about the early days of integration is how many of us were coached—by our parents and the mores of Southern culture–to move on and repress the memories of what happened to us. What this project does is bring those tightly imprinted yet closed recollections out into the open so that those who experienced this past can make sense of it,” said Ralph Eubanks. “Even more important, these stories can be used by students today so they can get of sense of how much the past had an impact on education today yet also led to a positive transformation of the structure of Southern society.”
The project shows no signs of stopping now. Soon, a podcast will be added to the lineup with a three-episode season, “This American Life”-style. As a documentarian, Fentress dreams of adding video accounts to the site, producing a full-length documentary film and staging a The Moth-style storytelling production for people to tell their school stories.
“All those avenues invest in the power of learning from each other’s personal stories,” said Fentress. “Besides these stories mattering to us today, I have to believe that the site’s first-person accounts are going to hold their importance for future generations as primary documents of history. Can you imagine the power of reading a parallel cross-section of stories from Mississippi a century ago or two centuries ago? Our essays stand to be that priceless.”
To support the Eyes of Mississippi Fund at the Community Foundation for Mississippi, which supports The Admissions Project, click here.