Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) sent her daughter to a private school that was created to allow white parents to avoid sending their children to the same schools as Black children, after Hyde-Smith graduated from a similar school in the 1970s, according to a report in the Jackson Free Press.
The new details about Hyde-Smith’s upbringing — and the school environment that she chose to pass down to her daughter — shed additional light on the Senate candidate’s recent comments joking about attending a lynching, remarks that have dogged her campaign and sparked an exodus of corporate funders.
White leaders in southern states sought to bypass school integration through the creation of private institutions. Known as “segregation academies,” these private schools were formed specifically in response to Brown v. Board of Education, when court-ordered integration was limited to public schools.
According to the Free Press, Hyde-Smith’s parents sent her to one such school — Lawrence County Academy — a few years after it was founded in 1970.
Hyde-Smith was a cheerleader at the school. In one photo from the academy’s yearbook published by the Free Press, she appears alongside the school’s mascot, dressed as a Confederate soldier and brandishing the Confederate flag.
A similar segregation academy, Brookhaven Academy, was formed the same year as Lawrence County Academy. Several decades later, Hyde-Smith’s daughter attended Brookhaven, graduating in 2017.
It’s not difficult to trace the origins of this type of private schooling to the racial dynamics present in our modern school system.
Many segregation academies remain in operation, and policy fights over public vouchers to help more Americans opt into private schools are enmeshed in debates over their racist legacy. Today, private schools — particularly private schools in the South — are still overwhelmingly white, according to a 2016 analysis from the Southern Education Foundation.
Brookhaven Academy is no exception. According to the Free Press, the private school enrolled 386 white students, five Asian students, and just one Black student during the 2015-2016 school year.
Indeed, school segregation is not an issue relegated to the history books in Mississippi. Just two years ago, one school district in Cleveland, Mississippi that has been resisting meaningful integration for five decades was ordered to desegregate. In her opinion, Judge Debra M. Brown wrote that Cleveland’s failure to grapple with confronting segregation has violated its children’s civil rights.
In this context, Hyde-Smith’s recent comments about lynching — saying that she would glady accept a front-row invitation to a “public hanging” — seem difficult to pass off as a harmless “joke,” as her campaign has attempted to do. It’s hard to believe the candidate would be completely ignorant of the racial context of her comments, considering her firsthand experiences with Mississippi’s fraught history of racism and segregation.
Former Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Rickey Cole — who has known Hyde-Smith throughout her political career — told the Free Press that it would have been obvious to Hyde-Smith why her parents enrolled her in a school like Lawrence County Academy.
“When the public schools in Mississippi were ordered desegregated, many thousands of white families cobbled together what they could laughingly call a school to send their children to for no other reason except they didn’t want them to be around n-words or to be treated or behave as equal to black people,” Cole said.
Though many segregation academies have since rebranded as conservative Christian private schools, Cole added that he doesn’t think Hyde-Smith should get a pass for deciding to send her daughter to a similar school.
Hyde-Smith and her Democratic opponent Mike Espy — who is Black — are headed to a runoff election on Tuesday. Though the Senate seat has historically been a safe one for Republicans, the controversy swirling around Hyde-Smith in recent days is making some GOP strategists nervous about a potential Democratic upset.