Why I enrolled my children in an Alabama 'segregation academy'

·6 min read

In those quiet, early morning moments alone, I sometimes wonder if there is truly value to the experiences I sacrifice to provide for my children. My youngest daughters, Breanna and Brooke, attend The Montgomery Academy, one of Alabama’s highest-ranked — and most costly — college preparatory private schools.

MA, as it’s commonly known, is also a “segregation academy,” founded in 1959 when wealthy, white Southern families sought legal loopholes to avoid complying with the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education unanimous ruling that outlawed racial segregation in schools. In other words, the founding parents did not want their children to attend school with Black children; I’m sure they used a much different word to describe our people.

Adeyela Albury Bennett is the chief executive officer of Women in Training, Inc.
Adeyela Albury Bennett is the chief executive officer of Women in Training, Inc.

So why would I sacrifice to enroll my precious chocolate-colored girls in such a school? We had been seeking a spiritual solution to our family’s unhappiness over our twins’ educational environment at the time. During our first five years in Alabama, Breanna and Brooke attended a competing private school. Brad and I were dissatisfied with the lack of diversity in the curriculum and faculty. Despite their outstanding academic, athletic, musical/theatrical and community service accomplishments, the girls never felt accepted or appreciated by some teachers and administrators. On too many afternoons, Breanna and Brooke entered the car crying: “We hate it here! Let’s go back to Miami or Dubai!” Our family previously lived in both cities before moving to Montgomery.

The spiritual signs all pointed toward MA as a solution. The signs began around February 2020. The girls and I were at Temple Beth Or’s legendary Jewish Food Festival and Treasure Market when a tall, middle aged gentleman excitedly came up to us.

“Breanna! Brooke!” he exclaimed. “I’m John McWilliams. I’m so proud of the work you’re doing with Women in Training to advocate for equity for marginalized girls!”

“Thank you!” Bree and Brooke politely responded, although none of us recognized the man or knew his name.

The COVID pandemic closed schools the following month.

Two years later, in April 2022, our family went to see the play, “Freedom Riders” at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival theatre. The production was about the college students who integrated the interstate bus system during the modern Civil Rights Movement. During the intermission, McWilliams approached us — again with warmth and enthusiasm.

“Congratulations on the passage of HB 50 in the Alabama Legislature!” McWilliams exclaimed.

HB 50 is the new Alabama law that provides menstrual products at no cost to students in Alabama’s Title I schools. Breanna and Brooke inspired State Rep. Rolanda M. Hollis of Birmingham to sponsor period poverty bills for three consecutive years until HB 50 passed unanimously in April 2022. Gov. Kay Ivey signed the bill into law, making Alabama only the seventh state in the nation with a mandate to provide free menstrual products in schools.

While we were still at the theatre, wondering who this mysterious stranger was, a nearby onlooker whispered: “Mr. McWilliams is the head of school at Montgomery Academy.”

Oh! That McWilliams!

In 2020, I read a post-George Floyd Montgomery Advertiser article in which McWilliams acknowledged The Montgomery Academy’s contribution to racial division in this city. He pledged to work hard to help correct some of the educational inequities caused by white flight out of the public school system and city.

"We have to think about ways that we can support communities beyond our school. We have to ask ourselves tough questions like: What impact did the creation of MA as an all-white school ultimately have on the support for the development of public education in Montgomery? What impact did the creation of MA and other private, initially segregated schools have on the development of racial divisions in our city and state?" McWilliams rhetorically asked in the Advertiser.

On our way home from the theatre, our family spoke about McWilliams’ genuine kindness.

The next day was Easter. Breanna and Brooke said they heard about the choir at First United Methodist Church in Cloverdale and wanted to check it out, so our family went there. It was raining on Easter morning, and we had trouble finding the sanctuary on the large church campus.

Guess who appeared out of nowhere to help us?

Yes! McWilliams! Turns out, he is in the choir at First United Methodist Church. McWilliams covered us with his umbrella and walked us to the sanctuary. The choir and musicians didn’t disappoint; the music was celestial!

The girls’ tennis coach, Bernard Sewell, knows everyone! We casually asked him if he knew McWilliams.

“Well, I know his parents from Selma,” Sewell said. “If he’s anything like them, you’ve got a good man who believes in the humanity of all people.”

We paid attention to the spiritual signs that kept presenting themselves to us, and applied for admission to The Montgomery Academy.

Now, every day, the girls enter the car with the same refrain: “We’re so happy at MA! Everyone acts like they WANT us here!” Music to our ears and soul.

The culture of any organization begins at the top. The MA head of school is clearly cultivating a sense of belonging for all students — and parents. McWilliams is a genuinely kind soul, and an inspiring leader. I don’t know if everyone at MA has always been so welcoming to non-white students. In fact, I know they haven’t always been this welcoming, because I’ve heard stories first-hand from Jewish and Asian friends about their horrid experiences in the 1960s through the 2000s, and even as recently as 2019.

In church last Sunday at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, Brooke whispered: “This is the third time I’ve heard that quote recently!”

“Which quote?” I inquired.

“The one Rev. [Joan] Harrel just read from the Book of Amos: ‘Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream!’”

Brooke explained that Dr. Scott Morris, her AP Capstone teacher at MA, played a video in class of Dr. Martin Luther King’s entire “I Have a Dream” speech from the 1963 March on Washington. After hearing the speech, Brooke said she shared the quote with classmates in her speech and debate class because she found it so impactful. She said she regularly ponders the MLK quote from the Book of Amos that is etched in stone on the front wall of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial Center. We often drive past the wall in downtown Montgomery.

“Oh, my goodness!” Breanna, my other twin daughter, fake-complained when we got home. “Dr. Morris has had us studying and dissecting Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches and his book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, for three whole weeks! Enough!”

Tears rolled down my face like water. Most schools merely gloss over this spiritual scholar’s work for a day or two near the Martin Luther King holiday. I was elated that my girls had been studying Dr. King’s momentous work for three weeks at MA. In fact, his writing and speeches deserve an entire school term to properly dissect.

This is the level of academic rigor and diversity in curriculum we want for our children. It’s absolutely divine that it’s happening at a school where our children feel a sense of belonging. Even if it is a formerly segregated school.

Adeyela Bennett is the chief executive officer of Women in Training, a young women’s empowerment organization. Her husband, Bradley Bennett, is the interim editorial director at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Their children, Breanna and Brooke, are sophomores at The Montgomery Academy, a formerly segregated school in Alabama.

This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Why I enrolled my children in an Alabama 'segregation academy'