By Derek Franklin
There are no extraordinary men… just extraordinary circumstances that ordinary men are forced to deal with.
Many people today define themselves by what they can’t do. Others allow individuals inside and outside their “circle” to limit what they think is possible. This relegates too many of us to a mundane existence. An existence filled with complaints about slights and grievances, both real and imagined. An existence characterized by mediocrity and under-achievement, and devoid of a knowledge of past achievements.
However, there is a rich, but largely unknown, history of noteworthy people who, despite the odds, defied the supposed “can’t do” reality to accomplish remarkable things.
One small, but important example is the Piney Woods Country Life School.
The story begins with one 24-year-old black man. Laurence C. Jones was born to a family of educators in 1884 in St. Joseph, Missouri. In 1908, after graduating from the University of Iowa, Jones turned down a teaching position at Tuskegee Institute to teach at Utica Institute (now Hinds Community College Utica) in Utica, Mississippi. The next year, he moved to Piney Woods, Mississippi. He had nothing but his college degree, $1.65 ($48.42 in today’s dollars), a lifetime’s worth of resolve, and a dream.
That dream was to bring education, based on Booker T. Washington’s model of practical schooling, and a better life to illiterate blacks in the backwoods of Rankin County, Mississippi.
Jones’ inspiration for starting Piney Woods stemmed from three things. First, his advantages growing up. Secondly, an in-born obligation to use his skills and talents to serve the less favored. And finally, the lack of quality schools in Mississippi and the South in general.
When Jones came to Piney Woods in 1908, the area included two schools. Both schools went to the eighth grade and there were no high schools. To call the two grade schools inadequate was an understatement.
The following year, Jones talked about the need for quality education to anyone who’d listen. His exuberant talk of starting a school was met with doubt and suspicion. At the time, blacks in the south didn’t trust outsiders, especially educated blacks from up north.
The circumstances surrounding Jones’s plan were extraordinary. There was no money, no facilities, distrust from blacks in the area, and real white supremacy. Far from the pseudo-white supremacy of today that amounts to little more than whites making mean faces at blacks.
American history teaches us this was nothing new.
Booker T. Washington went from slavery in 1856, to working in a coal mine at 11 years old, to earning a college degree from Hampton Institute in 1875. He was one of two commencement speakers that year – to principal of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (later Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University).
The initial school building was a church. When it rained a student had to hold an umbrella over Washington’s head as he taught. Eventually, he secured a loan of $200 which he used to buy 100 acres on the outskirts of town. The acreage formed the basis of what is now the current campus.
Today, the university sits on over 2,000 acres. It has 40 bachelor’s degree programs, 17 master’s degree programs, 4 doctoral degree programs, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program, and is home to over 3,000 students from over 30 countries. The university stands as a living testament of what one man can do under extraordinary circumstances.
At the time, Tuskegee University stood as a living, breathing example of what Jones could achieve in rural Piney Woods.
Thomas Sowell, in his book Education: Assumptions Versus History, said, “This history of the advancement of black Americans is almost a laboratory study of human achievement, for it extends back to slavery and was accomplished in the face of the strongest opposition confronting any American racial or ethnic group.”
In the book, Sowell examines a study conducted by Horace Mann Bond to reference “the advancement of black Americans.” In the study, Bond catalogued black academic excellence. His work included the study of six high schools.
Four of the six – McDonogh 35 High School in New Orleans, Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, Dunbar High School in Washington D.C., and Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta – produced several notable individuals.
This includes Wilson Riles, the first black state superintendent, Thurgood Marshall, the first black supreme court justice, and Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., the first black general. Among many, many others.
Their “firsts” highlight what a difference quality education can make. Especially in the lives of people motivated to overcome second class citizenship.
When considering the former institutions, Piney Woods was a precursor to some and a contemporary to others.
Jones’ time in Piney Woods during 1909 was a summer of discontent. The boll weevil’s massive crop damage dealt a blow in hopes for raising money. Furthermore, blacks in Rankin and Simpson counties viewed his speeches about the need for education for blacks with skepticism. To them, he was nothing more than an uppity “negro” from the north who was talkin’ loud but sayin’ nothing.
Soon, Jones retired to his quiet place on a log in the woods to lick his wounds. He thought long and hard on how to overcome present obstacles.
Eventually, he felt a pair of eyes staring at him. It was a curious, barefooted 16-year-old boy who Jones offered to teach how to read and write. The young boy agreed, and the school had its first student.
One student turned into three, then five, then 12. By November 1909, Jones taught 50 students sitting on logs and hand-hewn benches in the backwoods of Rankin County.
Soon, Jones’s school had the aid of a local farmer’s $50 donation, an abandoned sheep shed, and forty acres. He also got a gift of 10,000 board feet of lumber from the sawmill, and the supplies and sweat equity of the community.
On New Year’s Day in 1910, Piney Woods Country Life School was in full operation.
By the school’s tenth year in operation, it had 200 students, a host of buildings, and 800 acres.
The school’s educational efforts and the agricultural extension work it conducted in the local and surrounding areas eventually paid off. Black farmers in 1920 – some of whom former Piney Woods students – purchased six thousand acres of land in Rankin County. That was more than had been acquired in the twenty years before the school was established.
In 1929, when Mississippi would do nothing for blind, black children, Jones, and the Piney Woods school educated them. In 1945, after Helen Keller visited the Piney Woods school, she appealed to the state legislature for sufficient aid for the black and blind. Funds were eventually appropriated and used to build a small school for them in Jackson, MS.
When Jones died in 1975, at the age of 92, Piney Woods had over 200 students, sat on 2,000 acres, and had an endowment of $7,000,000.
Today, the curriculum at Piney Woods combines strict discipline with Christian teaching. Classroom instruction includes chores and practical life lessons. Over 98% of the school’s students go on to attend colleges such as Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College, and Harvard.
Again, Thomas Sowell said in Education: Assumptions Versus History, “When quality education for black youngsters is seen…as something that has already been achieved – that happened decades ago – then an attempt to understand the ingredients of such education can be made on the basis of that experience, rather than as a search for exotic revelations.”
The story of Piney Woods Country Life School stands as an example of what the human mind can conceive. Most importantly, it shows what dedication and hard work can achieve.
If Laurence C. Jones and his supporters could do what they did, under the toughest of circumstances, why can’t we do the same today?
Booker T. Washington said, “A whining crying race may be pitied but seldom respected.”
It’s time to leave the whiners behind and get to work.
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