Laurence Clifton Jones moved to the Deep South at a time when it was dangerous to be a black man in Mississippi. He chose to make the move to do what some considered to be impossible – build a school for children of color in rural Rankin County. He would face cultural and financial struggles and miraculously survive a lynching in pursuit of his dream.
Dr. Laurence Clifton Jones, the founder and longtime president of Piney Woods School in Rankin County Mississippi was a fervent believer in noblesse oblige, the belief that those who have been given much have an obligation to those who are less privileged. As a well educated man of color, born during Reconstruction, he had opportunities many of his race had never known.
Laurence Clifton Jones was born in 1884 in St Joseph, Missouri. His mother, Lydia, was a seamstress and his father, John, was a porter. His parents instilled an early love of reading and education in their son. They believed education was the cornerstone of success.
Their love of education was a family trait. Laurence Jones’s uncle was the founder of the The Woodstock Manual Labor Institute , opened in Michigan in 1844. The school was strategically placed because Michigan had progressive rights for African Americans compared to other states.
Before the Civil War, African Americans were prohibited from learning to read or write. This was in an effort to ensure they submitted to white people who enslaved them and believed in white supremacy. Following the war, millions of freed people of color faced limitations of their legal rights as Jim Crow laws of segregation grew severe. Access to education was a prime example of separate and unequal in the South. White schools received the bulk of funding from the state and government as black schools would find no support or improvements. The result would be a lack of access to schools and a decline in the quality of education available to children of color.
Having been born during the Reconstruction era, Laurence Jones would have traveled a very different path had he been born in the deep south. But in Missouri, he had access to choices, even if those options meant his family would be separated. John and Lydia Jones were adamant that their son attend a school where he could thrive. Laurence displayed advanced levels of reading and learning, and was particularly passionate about music and poetry. He was excited to learn but his parents realized that, by the time he was in high school, his local school district wouldn’t be able to accommodate his needs.
His aunt and uncle urged Laurence’s parents to send him to school in Marshalltown, Iowa, where he stayed with family and attended Marshalltown High School. In 1903, Jones would become the first black student to graduate from the school.
Jones continued his education, attending a business college before enrolling at the University of Iowa. He worked countless jobs to pay for his education, rising every day at 4:00 am and returning to his room no earlier than 9:00pm. His hard work and determination paid off when he graduated in 1907 with a degree in philosophy.
While attending the University of Iowa, Laurence Jones met Grace Morris Allen, who was five years his senior. She had been hard at work to advance education, having launched an industrial school in Iowa.
The two met when Jones was delivering a speech at a church, sharing concerns about the condition of blacks in the South. Grace Allen shared Jones’s passion for education and was invited to speak about her knowledge of deplorable conditions in the education system.
Laurence Jones would later say that during that speech he saw Grace Allen as articulate, vigorous and bright eyed. A woman who inspired him. Laurence was taken by her and determined that their paths would cross again when he improved his life.
In 1908, Laurence Jones, who had been greatly inspired by the life and work of Booker T. Washington, was presented with a generous job offer to work at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Jones turned the job down because he had learned more about the high illiteracy rate of people of color in the South, specifically the 80% illiteracy rate in rural Rankin County, Mississippi.
Jones felt that his opportunities in life were blessings and those blessings were rare for people of color in America during this era. His sense of Noblesse oblige would lead him to challenging yet rewarding work, advancing the education of people of color in rural Mississippi.
For the next two years, Laurence Jones set about transitioning his life to the deep south. He would write that he first chose to teach in Arkansas to adjust to a new climate and atmosphere. He then moved on to the deep south, taking a teaching job at Utica Institute, near Jackson, Mississippi.
Laurence Jones found his transition to the south to be tough. He described himself as being “the black man white people didn’t trust simply because he was black and educated. And he was the black man that Black people didn’t trust because he wore fancy shoes and talked funny.” He worked hard to earn their trust and get to know people so they could trust in him and his mission.
While he was teaching at Utica Institute, Jones was approached by the leadership of St. John’s Baptist Church in Rankin County. They asked him to lead their efforts to establish a school after their attempt to start one for the black children in the county had been suppressed by white people.
Jones was familiar with Rankin County. He knew the challenges people of color had faced in trying to establish schools for children there. Threats of violence from white supremacists and the overwhelming obstacle of funding.
Laurence Jones did not view this situation as a threat. He viewed it as his calling. His overall goal was to create a school where children of poor, black farmers and former slaves could be educated. A safe place for those children who did not have the means or access to school. As Jones wrote in his book Piney Woods and Its Story, he made the move to Mississippi to answer the quote: “cries of my people for the opportunities of education which were being denied them.”
To say his dream would have humble beginnings is an understatement. in 1909, when Jones boarded a train for an area known, as the Piney Woods, he travelled light. When he stepped off the train, he had a few textbooks, a few clean shirts, his diploma and a total of one dollar and sixty five cents in his pocket. And as he put it, a lot of faith in God that this would work out.
When the train arrived in Braxton, Mississippi, Jones stepped off and walked to an area covered with cedar trees. When he sat down to rest under one of those trees, he realized this would be a perfect place to start what he would call Piney Woods Country Life School.
His first day of class was held outside under cedar trees, with three children attending the school. He used a tree stump as his desk as he met the children outside each day to educate them.
Soon, a local man gave him an abandoned cabin and a little patch of land which allowed him to move his little classroom indoors.
Day after day, he worked hard to spread the word about his school and intention to educate the sons and daughters of black sharecroppers. Some of the very first students to be educated at Piney Woods Country Life School were children and grandchildren of former slaves.
Before focusing on academic subjects, Jones focused on teaching life skills in an effort to ensure each child who attended the school would be able to support themselves.
Tuition for the school was paid in the form of goods and services from the students farms. It was truly a community effort.
In 1912, there was a key addition to Piney Woods Country Life School. Grace Allen. Laurence reconnected with Grace when he visited Iowa on a fundraising mission. The two fell in love and by the end of the summer, they would marry and return to Piney Woods. They would have a family and work together to grow the school. Laurence Jones would say that Grace’s vision and talent for teaching and management would be key to their success.
By 1913, the state granted Jones a charter. Laurence’s gift for fundraising would be an important element in their success. With the support of local donors and donors from Iowa, the first building was constructed at Piney Woods. It served as a classroom and a dormitory for students at the boarding school.
Laurence Jones was often on the road, travelling across Mississippi and the country to share his mission and vision for children of color and raise funds to help sustain Piney Woods. He found support and even donations for Piney Woods from unexpected friends. Keep in mind, Jones was running a growing boarding school for children of color in rural Mississippi during the Jim Crow era. In the very state that with the highest number of racial terror lynchings in the country. White supremacy was considered the norm in Mississippi at this time.
Jones did have support from a close group of southern white friends who donated money and even their time and skills to help expand Piney Woods.
But in 1918, Laurence Jones would come face to face with the reality of racial terror in the American South.
In 1918, a friend invited Jones to attend a revival at his church in West Mississippi. Jones wasn’t a pastor but his friend invited him because he was a powerful speaker with an inspiring testimony of good things happening for people of color in Mississippi.
Emotions were running high across the state and the country during this time. The First World War was being fought and rumors were rampant in Mississippi, including one rumor that Germans were meeting with people of color to encourage them to rebel against whites.
This rumor was spreading when Laurence Jones went to speak at his friend’s church. As Jones would later write in his memoir, over the course of the three day revival, he used words and phrases that were drawn from military life. Telling the congregation that life is a battle and they needed to fight back against ignorance, poverty and superstition. A group of white men were outside of the church and heard Jones speaking. They became enraged and began to spread the word that the Black pastor preaching at this church was challenging and inviting people of color to rise up against, and fight white people.
On the third day of the revival, an angry white mob arrived at the church around noon, and asked for Jones by name. When he stepped forward, a few of the men grabbed him, held him down and placed a noose around his neck. Jones was dragged from the church and taken about a mile up the road to a field with one tree. He was forced to stand by the tree, on a heap of trash and wood and as the mob grew larger Jones realized his fate. He was going to be burned and hung from that tree.
Jones would never forget the sound of the horses and mules arriving in the field, carrying more white men who wanted to be there and take part in his lynching. The crowd grew so large that it was hard for Laurence Jones to hear what happened next. Someone shouted: “Let’s make him talk before he burns!” After repeating this yell a few times, the man stepped forward and taunted Laurence Jones, telling him to make a speech before he died.
That’s what Laurence Jones did. He stood with a noose around his neck, on the pile where the men planned to burn him alive and told them about his work. Why he had chosen to come to Mississippi.
He shared that he had graduated from college and chosen to dedicate his life to educating people and creating change for his race. He spoke of his fondness for his treasured friends, white and black, who worked with him at the school and donated to Piney Woods. The more he talked, the more names he mentioned, Jones felt the mob back off. The tension was still there but it wasn’t as bad as it had been when that noose first went around his neck. He finally pleaded with the men to let him live, not for himself, but for his cause.
When Laurence Jones shared all he knew to share to save his life, the mob grew silent for what felt like a lifetime. He noticed a man move from the crowd and move to stand next to him by the tree.
The older white man turned back to the crowd and said: “I believe this man is telling the truth. I know the white men whose names he has mentioned. He is doing a fine work. We have made a mistake. We ought to help him instead of hang him.”
The next thing that man did shocked Jones. This white man, who joined in this angry mob that had minutes ago been shouting that he was going to burn and hang, that man took off his hat and told the men they were going to take up a collection. They passed the hat and raised a gift of $52.40.
Dale Carnegie would share this story in his book, How To Stop Worrying and Start Living. He recounted meeting Laurence Jones and hearing his incredible story of survival. Carnegie asked Jones if he hated the men who had put that noose around his neck, had led him to that lynching tree. Laurence Jones replied: “I have no time to quarrel, no time for regrets, and no man can force me to stoop low enough to hate him.”
Throughout the 1920s, Piney Woods would grow and expand programs at the boarding school including musical training.
By 1929, Jones collaborated with Martha Louise Foxx, a pioneering educator of the blind, to open the Mississippi Blind School for Negroes at Piney Woods School. Students school were held to the same standards as Piney Woods. They were expected to learn skills and work hard for their tuition. They contributed to the construction of school buildings, learned how to can vegetables and helped develop agricultural programs.
Laurence Jones and Martha Foxx struggled to find support for the school until they came up with an idea to organize a music group that would tour with Jones on his fundraising tours. They organized the Cotton Blossom Singers, a blind quartet that inspired many people to donate to the work of the school. Following their graduation in the early 1940s, the original Cotton Blossom Singers would become world renowned artists recording as the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi.
Donors were moved by the groundbreaking program for the blind at Piney Woods. Once the students reached high school, they were moved from the school for the blind and placed in class at the traditional high school. The Piney Woods program for the blind was one of the first in the country to move blind students into the mainstream and prepare them for a lifetime of success.
Helen Keller was a fan and supporter of the school for their unique program. Keller visited the school and in 1950, spoke before the Mississippi legislature to appeal for funding for blind students. Later that year, the Mississippi School for Blind Negroes was moved to Jackson where it would be integrated with white blind students.
Along with the innovative Cotton Blossom Singers and Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, the musical roots at Piney Woods run deep. The school is featured on the Mississippi Blues Trail with blues man, Sam Myers, who was legally blind, having attended the school where he learned to play trumpet and drums. Blues guitarist Jody Williams, also attended and would go on to work with Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf.
Piney Woods School would be the birthplace of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated all female band in the United States. During the 1940s the band featured some of the best female musicians of the day, including Helen Jones, who had been orphaned and had been adopted by Laurence Jones. He encouraged her to pursue her passion for music and the arts.
By the 1950s Laurence Jones would become Dr. Jones when he received honorary doctorates from four colleges and earned an honorary Master of Arts from the Tuskegee Institute.
He made regular appearances on radio to tell his story and the story of Piney Woods. His 1954 appearance on This is Your Life led to nationwide awareness of Laurence Jones and support for Piney Woods School.
This if Your Life featured host, Ralph Edwards, surprising a guest of the week. He’d then take them through a retrospective of their lives. This all played out in front of a live studio audience, and included appearances by colleagues, friends, and family and of the guest.
Laurence Jones was reunited that day with his high school principal and a college friend who spoke of his determination and hard work. He praised Jones for his decision to pass up lucrative job offers when he graduated and follow his mission to educate children in Mississippi.
He would also be reunited with the Reverend William C Dixon, who was one of the first children to attend Piney Woods School in 1909, in those early days when the class met outside.
Two of the earliest friends Laurence Jones met in Jackson, Mississippi were Mr. and Mrs. W F Mahaffey. They were there for the first fundraising meeting and would later join the board of trustees for the school.
Ralph Edwards was so moved by the story of Piney Woods and Laurence Jones dedication to education that he ended the program with a challenge to his viewers. He asked each person watching to send one dollar to support Piney Woods Country Life School. That challenge, led to more than $700,000 in donations to Piney Woods. Dr. Jones used the money to establish the schools’ endowment fund.
Dr. Laurence Clifton Jones dedicated his life to education and the students at Piney Woods. He led the school until 1974, just one year before he passed away at the age of 92. His legacy continues today with 98 percent of Piney Woods graduates attending four year colleges.
Dr. Jones, and countless staff members and supporters, pressed on during the early days at Piney Woods. Dr. Jones wrote that they would labor and sing in their hearts the words of the poet Henry Van Dyke
Let me but find it in my heart to say,“Work” by Henry Van Dyke
When vagrant wishes beckon me astray,
“This is my work; my blessing, not my doom;
“Of all who live, I am the one by whom
“This work can best be done in the right way.”
Then shall I see it not too great, nor small,
To suit my spirit and to prove my powers;
Then shall I cheerful greet the labouring hours,
And cheerful turn, when the long shadows fall
At eventide, to play and love and rest,
Because I know for me my work is best.
The modern Piney Woods School is known as an academic oasis in Mississippi. 300 students now attend the boarding school hailing from more than 20 states, Mexico, the Caribbean and several African nations.
Legacy defines Piney Woods. Modern day administration and staff uphold that legacy and always remind students of the story of Dr. Jones. Every graduating class pays a visit to a wooded area on the campus of Piney Woods, where they visit the graves of Dr. Jones and his wife Grace. They’re buried facing the log cabin where the first classes were held back in 1909.
As each graduation class visits, they pay their respects, and unite in prayer and song. Honoring the past as they look to a bright future, thanks to passion and persistence of Laurence and Grace Jones.
“In 1918, A Black Man Avoided Lynching & Convinced The Mob To Donate To His School” September 2, 2017 https://www.inspiremore.com/laurence-jones-educator-activist/
“America’s ‘Sweethearts’: An All-Girl Band That Broke Racial Boundaries”, March 22, 2011 https://www.npr.org/2011/03/22/134766828/americas-sweethearts-an-all-girl-band-that-broke-racial-boundaries
“Piney Woods: An Academic Oasis”, June 27, 2005 https://www.cbsnews.com/news/piney-woods-an-academic-oasis/
Sewell, George. (1977). Mississippi Black History Makers. Retrieved from http://books.google.com
Jones, Laurence Clifton. (1922). Piney Woods and Its Story. Retrieved from http://books.google.com
Thoreau by Spazz Cardigan; Concentration and Peace of Mind by Kevin MacLeod; Slow Hammers by The Mini Vandals, Wandering by Lee Rosevere, Firefly by Chris Haugen All music licensed under Creative Commons. Devouring the Whole and Burial Grounds, courtesy of Ross Gentry