A History of Private Schools and Race in the American South

Private schools may have a long, honorable tradition in America that goes back to colonial times, but that tradition ended—at least in the American South—in the last half of the 20th century when they were used as safe havens for Southern Whites to escape the effects of the impending and ongoing desegregation mandates. This exodus from public schools began in the 1940s, when private school enrollment in the 15 states of the South[1] rose by more than 125,000 students—roughly 43 percent—in response to U.S. Supreme Court decisions outlawing segregation in graduate and professional schools in the South.[2] While the decisions only concerned institutions of higher education, it signaled to watchful Southern leaders that desegregation might soon spread to their public elementary and secondary schools, compelling them to react in ways to defend their way of life.

Private schools in the South were established, expanded, and supported to preserve the Southern tradition of racial segregation in the face of the federal courts’ dismantling of “separate but equal.” White students left public schools in droves to both traditional and newly formed private schools. From 1950 to 1965, private school enrollment grew at unprecedented rates all over the nation, with the South having the largest growth.

By 1958, the South’s private school enrollment had exploded, increasing by more than 250,000 students over an eight-year period, and boasting almost one million students in 1965. This growth was catalyzed by Southern state legislatures, who enacted as many as 450 laws and resolutions between 1954 and 1964 attempting to block, postpone, limit, or evade the desegregation of public schools, many of which expressly authorized the systematic transfer of public assets and monies to private schools. For example, in 1961, Georgia passed a bill to provide tax-funded scholarships and grants for students to attend any non-sectarian private school, doling out roughly $218,000 ($3.6 million in terms of relative income value in 2013) to finance the scholarships of more than 1,500 students in private schools. While none of the new laws specifically mentioned “race” or racial segregation, each had the effect of obstructing Black students from attending all-White public schools.[3]

Eventually these enactments supporting private schools were invalidated by federal courts or abandoned by Southern states that faced likely court challenges because the bills were seen as indirect, covert efforts to evade or disrupt public school desegregation and “significantly encourage and involve the State in private discriminations.”[4] But many still found ways to extract public dollars for private schools.

From the mid-1960s to 1980, as public schools in the Deep South began to slowly desegregate through federal court orders, private school enrollment increased by more than 200,000 students across the region—with about two-thirds of that growth occurring in six states: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

During this time, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) vacillated in its allowance of tax deductions for private schools. In the early 1960s, facing growing backlash from civil rights organizations, the IRS temporarily suspended applications of avowed “segregation academies” for federal tax exemptions, a tax status permitting taxpayers in Southern states to reduce their federal taxable income when contributing to racially exclusionary private schools. But in 1967, it announced tax deductions for contributions to any segregated academy. This led to a Mississippi-based lawsuit against the IRS in 1969 in which federal courts issued a preliminary injunction denying exemption to private schools that were segregated by race. Following this court order, the IRS adopted a non-discrimination policy applying to private schools in 1970, though it took eight years to be implemented.

As the IRS trudged along with implementation of non-discrimination policies and went back-and-forth in a series of proposed administrative procedures and Congressional hearings, private school enrollment in the South continued to grow. What was once the South’s 11 percent share of the nation’s private school enrollment had reached 24 percent in 1980. The 11 Southern states of the old Confederacy enrolled between 675,000 and 750,000 White students in the early 1980s, and it is estimated that 65 to 75 percent of these students attended schools in which 90 percent or more of the student body was White.[5]

Eventually, the IRS instituted its new policies but faced backlash from religious private schools in the South. This fight culminated in a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court case that upheld the application of the IRS ruling to religious schools in a case involving Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian school in South Carolina.[6]

As a result of the new IRS rules and the Bob Jones University case, all private schools in the South began publishing regular statements of non-discrimination in admission, and most began admitting at least a small number of Black students and other students of color. This marked what should have been the end of state-funded segregation in private schools and the beginning of a new era of integration. This was not the case.

This article was first published by SEF in 2016.

[1] The 15 states in the South referenced here include Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.

[2] Richard Kruger, “Simple Justice” (New York: 1975), 256-284; Sam P. Wiggins, “Higher Education in the South” (Berkeley: 1966) 169.

[3] Thomas V. O’Brien, “The Politics of Race and Schooling: Public Education in Georgia,” 1900-1961(Lanham, Maryland: 1999) 99-198.

[4] Coffey v. State Educ. Fin. Com., 296 F. Supp. 1389 (S.D. Miss. 1969); Griffin v. State Bd. of Educ., 296 F. Supp. 1178 (E.D. Va. 1969); Poindexter v. Louisiana Fin. Assistance Com., 296 F. Supp. 686 (E.D. La. 1968); Brown v. South Carolina State Bd. of Educ., 296 F. Supp. 199 (D.S.C.), affd. per curiam, 393 U.S. 222 (1968); Poindexter v. Louisiana Fin. Assistance Com., 275 F. Supp. 833 (E.D. La. 1967), affd. per curiam, 389 US. 571 (1968); Lee v. Macon County Bd. of Educ., 267 F. Supp. 458 (M.D. Ala. 1967); Hawkins v. North Carolina State Bd. of Educ., 11 Race Rel. L. Rep. 745 (W.D.N.C. 1966); Griffin v. State Bd. of Educ., 239 F. Supp. 560 (E.D. Va. 1965); Lee v. Macon County Bd. of Educ., 231 F. Supp. 743 (E.D. Ala. 1964); Pettaway v. County School Bd., 230 F. Supp. 480 (E.D. Va.). affd. 339 F.2d 486 (2d Cir. 1964); Hall v. St. Helena Parish School Ed., 197 F. Supp. 649 (E.D. La. 1961), affd., 368 U.S. 515 (1962); Aaron v. McKinley, 173 F. Supp. 944 (E.D. Ark.), affd. sub nom., Faubus v. Aaron, 361 US. 197 (1959).

[5] “Tax Exemptions and Segregated Private Schools: Hearing” (1982), p.69; National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 1981.

[6] Christian Science Monitor, January 14, 1982; Bob Jones Univ. v. United States, 461 U.S. 574 (1983); Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 18, 1986.