By Janice K. Neal-Vincent
The Mississippi Department of History and Archives featured Dr. Will Crossley, president of Piney Woods Country Life School, at the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson last Wednesday.
During MDAH’s History is Lunch Series and Hall of Fame recognition Crossley provided extensive coverage of the school while enlightening the audience of the visionary that its founder, Dr. Laurence C. Jones, was.
Jones was born into a family of educators in Joseph, Mo. As he advanced in education and served in various leadership roles, he longed to eradicate poverty among southern school children. He believed that they could gain freedom through education. Crossley disclosed that Jones embarked upon his dream when he founded Piney Woods with $2 and three students.
“Ed Taylor, a local free slave, donated 40 acres and an abandoned sheep shed to Dr. Jones to begin Piney Woods School. Jones began to teach students who had no money, so students brought chickens and other items for entrance to the school. Students agreed to work in exchange for their education, a trend which continued through the ’50s,” said Crossley.
According to Crossley, “Piney Woods became a city on the hill for surrounding students and those from the North. Teachers came from the North and worked with no pay. There was very little state support, only $18 a month.” Despite meager funds, however, the school would grow and expand.
The speaker further noted that Jones never rejected students. “Those with disabilities were accepted as well as all others,” he said. As Jones continued to work for the good of students, he also provided mechanisms for teachers to be trained.
During the 1950s national television reported progress Jones had made at Piney
Woods. Crossley explained that television spotlighted the first interracial all girls’ jazz band which toured internationally. Brick masonry was also mentioned. “Many of the brick buildings on campus today were done by the Piney Woods students,” Crossley said.
On another note, Crossley indicated that Jones had his share of critics. While some argued that Jones could have done more for Piney Woods, “He was driven to success. He spoke against poverty and ignorance.” Crossley continued, “A people person, Jones received advice from the educated and the uneducated.”
Crossley acknowledged the presence of Piney Woods Country Life School’s graduates and supporters and invited them to make comments.
One by one the speakers arose among the audience and shared how they were galvanized by Jones’ leadership. Director of Johnson Ministries Caring, Janie Johnson, recognized Jones as “an educational investor.” “He instilled education. It is a must have,” Johnson explained.
“Dr. Jones was a proponent of education, discipline and focus. The school stands for excellence and encourages students to reach maximum educational attainment,” stated entrepreneur Socrates Garrett.
Mamie Crockett, reading consultant for local colleges and universities, stressed that she was an honor student and engaged in extracurricular activities when she attended Piney Woods. “I forged ahead to obtain excellence because of the foundation Dr. Jones laid,” she chuckled.
Ombudsmen and Title III liaison at Jackson State University, Dr. Dianne Everett, recalled Piney Woods to be the place where she wanted to be because it emphasized dignity and worthiness of the individual. She told the audience she makes it her business to nurture her students in accordance with learning she obtained from the school. Everett added, “I try to have at least one student from Piney Woods work in my office.”
Crossley was accommodated by Krispen R. Williams, admissions counselor at Piney Woods. He compared Piney Woods to previous schools of which he was employed. “Six months ago God sent me to Piney Woods. I was a high school administrator. Kids were fighting, parents came to the school. That was against my value system. Someone told me that the Lord said I was to work at Piney Woods. We have a clear vision and an energetic leader who is open to new ideas and young folks like me have embraced the vision. Piney Woods School is so much more than a boarding school. We can save our children,” said Williams.
Piney Woods Country Life School (5096 U. S. 49) in Rankin County, founded in 1909, is a co-educational independent historically African- American boarding school for grades 9-12.
For inquiries, call (601) 845-5860.