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 rose by more than 125,000 students—roughly 43 percent—in response to US Supreme Court decisions outlawing segregation in graduate and professional schools in the South. 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.