The evolution of Ellen Ann Fentress’ work continues.
A project that originally started as essays about segregation academies in the state of Mississippi has changed names to include stories from public schools. The revamped website, which is called “The Admissions Project: Race and the Possible for Southern Schools,” has been featured recently on The Community Foundation for Mississippi. The foundation is the fiscal agent for the project, a 501c3 nonprofit.
Fentress, a visiting professor in the Mississippi University for Women’s low-residency MFA in Creative Writing, also has started work on a three-episode podcast of polished audio documentaries in the style of “This American Life,” an American weekly hour-long public radio program. Fentress has taken three reporting trips this summer to the Heidelberg, Mississippi, area to begin work on the podcasts with the support of Robert Anderson and Marshand Boone, project contributors who are lending crucial time and skill to the nonprofit.
“With so much culture wars conversation about writing on race, the project is a vote for the power of hard truth telling,” said Fentress, who is seeking grass-roots support to keep the project operating. A $7,500 grant from the Mississippi Humanities Council that allowed Fentress to launch the project under its original title, “The Academy Stories,” in October 2019 recently expired.
The project is special for Fentress, whose mother graduated from The W and whose grandmother and great grandmother also attended the school, in part because she graduated from Pillow Academy in Greenwood in 1974. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Modern Languages from Mississippi College in 1978 and an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College in 2008.
“No one really wants to tell the stories because it is not a proud story, but they need to be recorded for history,” said Fentress, who first wrote about her experiences at Pillow Academy in an essay in the online publication “The Bitter Southerner.” She said she recently noticed at least one college syllabus (from Trinity College in Connecticut) assigning reading from “The Admissions Project.”
Fentress isn’t The W’s only tie to “The Admissions Project.” Faculty members Paulette Boudreaux and Bridget Smith Pieschel have shared their stories on the website as have MFA students and alumni like Teresa Nicholas (current student) and MFA alums Jackie Clowney and Courtney Clark.
Fentress said Clowney only realized her alma mater had been founded as a way to flee Memphis school integration after she heard her presentation on the history project during our 2020 MFA residency.
Clark’s story was cited in “Southern Beauty,” a southern history study released by University of Georgia Press on Aug. 15. After her site essay appeared, she talked about the experience and about taking part in “The Admissions Project” on Delta Talk by David Dallas, a radio and online interview program.
Also, MFA alum Kyla Hanington organized and appeared in webcasts about “The Admissions Project” co-sponsored by the Prince George’s County (Maryland) Memorial Library and the county’s Human Relations Commission. Boudreaux talked about her essay as a guest on the April 2021 webcast.
The Mississippi Free Press has partnered with “The Admissions Project” by presenting a portal to the project on its home page. There have also been programs at Delta State University, at the 2022 Southern Literary Festival at The W in April and at the past two years’ McMullan Young Writers Workshop, which brings high school writers together for a week-long residency every July at Millsaps College.
Fentress said a date hasn’t been set for the release of the podcast. She welcomes financial support to help defray travel and technical expenses and encourages grant makers or grass-roots supporters who find resonance with the project to aid in her efforts to capture pieces of avoided history she feels will enable everyone to take important steps toward a healthier future.
“The story keeps evolving,” Fentress said. “I can’t help but think bringing this conversation into the light instead of continuing to suppress it — because it hasn’t been talked about for 50 years — is going to help. I hope the website is not just a confessional. It is designed to have a constructive conversation and to see where it goes. The first step is to tell these stories.”
Fentress encourages anyone who wants to tell their academy or public-school story to go to: https://admissionsprojects.com/.
If you would like to donate to the project, go to: https://formississippi.networkforgood.com/projects/106312-eyes-on-mississippi?fbclid=IwAR0zw1bG2s9bRT07jqXe3Hy9RC90hXp5d8HDmhKYNY1JdJN3z2tE8SEh7VI