America’s Largest Black Boarding School Sends 97 Percent of Students to College

Feb. 12, 2015, 6:05 a.m.

PINEY WOODS, Miss.—”Those who think they can’t are usu­ally right,” reads a sign in the grass out­side the girls’ dorm­it­ory at Piney Woods Coun­try Life School.

“Suc­cess De­pends Upon Your­self” is carved in­to a stone in the gazebo. A few feet away, the Lat­in phrase “Labor Om­nia Vin­cit” is carved onto a con­crete ledge. Work Con­quers All.

Mo­tiv­a­tion­al quotes like these are scattered throughout the 2,000-acre board­ing school in rur­al Mis­sis­sippi. They are the kinds of mes­sages stu­dents get from the mo­ment their alarms go off at 5:30 in the morn­ing un­til lights-out at 10 pm.

The Piney Woods Coun­try Life School is Amer­ica’s largest his­tor­ic­ally black board­ing school, and one of the few re­main­ing, with a sprawl­ing cam­pus of pine trees and rolling farm­land just 20 miles south of Jack­son. It opened in 1909 as the vis­ion of an edu­cated Afric­an-Amer­ic­an man from St. Louis who felt a de­sire to teach the il­lit­er­ate chil­dren of freed slaves how to farm and read. In the face of hun­ger, poverty, and lynch­ing threats, Dr. Laurence Jones and his wife fought to keep the school open in the se­greg­ated South.

Now, more than 100 years later, the vo­ca­tion­al ag­ri­cul­ture school has trans­formed in­to a rig­or­ous, col­lege-prep high school for low-in­come Afric­an-Amer­ic­an stu­dents from across the United States.

Ex­pect­a­tions at Piney Woods are high, and so is the pres­sure. Gradu­at­ing is a giv­en—every stu­dent here is ex­pec­ted to go to col­lege. It doesn’t mat­ter if they come from a ghetto in the Bronx or the sub­urbs of De­troit. Some 97 per­cent of stu­dents who gradu­ated from Piney Woods last year earned col­lege ac­cept­ances, from places such as Spel­man Col­lege in At­lanta and Kings Col­lege in Pennsylvania.

Roughly one-third of the school’s 120 stu­dents grew up in Mis­sis­sippi. The rest come from 20 oth­er states, and a hand­ful are in­ter­na­tion­al stu­dents from Ethiopia and the Carib­bean. Every­one re­ceives tu­ition as­sist­ance or a schol­ar­ship to help cov­er the $23,000 an­nu­al cost. In re­turn, stu­dents are re­quired to work part time on cam­pus.

Wil­lie Cross­ley Jr. worked in the school’s hog pen when he at­ten­ded Piney Woods 30 years ago. He ar­rived in the eighth grade, to es­cape the rough neigh­bor­hood where he grew up in Chica­go’s south side. Cross­ley cred­its the Piney Woods ex­per­i­ence with his ac­cept­ance to the Uni­versity of Chica­go, a rare op­por­tun­ity for black kids from his neigh­bor­hood, he says.

“I think I could count on my hands the num­ber of oth­er kids, par­tic­u­larly Afric­an-Amer­ic­an kids, from the south side of Chica­go who were at Uni­versity of Chica­go when I was a stu­dent,” says Cross­ley, who later re­ceived a mas­ter’s de­gree in edu­ca­tion from Har­vard and a law de­gree from the Uni­versity of Vir­gin­ia.

Cross­ley taught in the Chica­go pub­lic schools and later held prom­in­ent jobs as chief coun­sel for the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee and as a seni­or ad­viser in the Of­fice of Civil Right at the Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment. He left the lat­ter job last year and re­turned to Piney Woods to serve as the school’s pres­id­ent—the first alum to lead the school. Now Cross­ley sits in the of­fice that once be­longed to Jones, the founder of Piney Woods, who passed away in 1975.

The school, which is fun­ded by private dona­tions and found­a­tions, struggled fin­an­cially dur­ing the Great Re­ces­sion. Its en­dow­ment took a hit on the stock mar­ket, and the school had to cut back the num­ber of stu­dents it could ac­cept and sup­port. En­roll­ment is down from a peak of about 500 stu­dents dec­ades ago (it used to of­fer classes from K-12).

Since re­turn­ing to Piney Woods, Cross­ley has fo­cused on how the school can con­tin­ue to sup­port and ment­or its gradu­ates once they leave. Though most stu­dents go on to col­lege, many don’t fin­ish. The biggest bar­ri­er to get­ting a dip­loma is of­ten find­ing the money for school, Cross­ley says. 

“Col­lege is a huge fo­cus, and one that many of our kids aren’t able to real­ist­ic­ally be­lieve they can achieve—un­til they come in­to an en­vir­on­ment where it’s not only real­ist­ic but it’s ex­pec­ted that they will, in fact, do that,” he says.

The spring semester is un­der­way, and Cross­ley drives from his of­fice to one of his fa­vor­ite spots on cam­pus. It’s the ce­dar tree where Jones set up a bench to teach his first three stu­dents to read. Across the way is an old wooden sheep shed—the first school house. Next to that are the graves of Jones and his wife.

“This is where I come some­times. It gives me in­spir­a­tion,” says Cross­ley. It also re­minds him why he left a prom­in­ent po­s­i­tion in Wash­ing­ton for a second round at Piney Woods.

Jones de­fied the odds when he opened a school for poor blacks in the se­greg­ated South. The gov­ernor of Mis­sis­sippi at the time, James Var­da­m­an, was a known white-su­prem­acist who op­posed edu­ca­tion for Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans. But Jones man­aged to pro­tect his school from people with sim­il­ar ideas by be­friend­ing white busi­ness own­ers in Rankin County, where he star­ted the school with $2 in his pock­et. A re­spec­ted, white saw­mill own­er donated lum­ber so Jones could fix up the sheep shed on land donated by a former slave. 

On the first day of school in 1910, Jones told 100 stu­dents: “You have come here to seek free­dom, not from the kind of slavery your par­ents en­dured, but from a slavery of ig­nor­ance of mind and awk­ward­ness of body. You have come to edu­cate your head, your hands, and your heart,” ac­cord­ing to a bio­graphy of Jones en­titled The Little Pro­fess­or of Piney Woods.

The school con­tin­ued to grow over the dec­ades as Jones raised money from people in the North. Suc­cess­ful alumni in­clude No­bel Peace Prize nom­in­ee Randy San­difer and James Al­fred, an act­or and play­wright who plays a small role in the hit Fox show Em­pire.

Maya Riddles, a cur­rent ju­ni­or at Piney Woods, says the school’s his­tory means a lot to her as an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an stu­dent.

“I see this his­tory like gold,” says Riddles, sit­ting in her dorm room after class. “Ste­reo­typ­ic­ally, people don’t see Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans as be­ing suc­cess­ful. Where­as, you come here, and there are a lot of suc­cess­ful Afric­an-Amer­ic­an people here.”

Riddles was hes­it­ant to come to Piney Woods, she says, think­ing her class­mates would all be “cow­boys” and “coun­try people.” She was sur­prised to meet fel­low stu­dents from all over the U.S. and coun­tries like Ethiopia.

The 17-year-old hon­ors stu­dent was raised by a work­ing single moth­er in At­lanta who sent her to private schools through eighth grade, but couldn’t af­ford a private high school. Riddles wor­ried she would end up as an­oth­er “stat­ist­ic” in the pub­lic school sys­tem.

Her fresh­man year at Piney Woods was over­whelm­ing, she says, and she struggled to bal­ance her de­mand­ing course­work with ex­tra­cur­ricular activ­it­ies and part-time work.

“It was a cul­ture shock, com­ing here, wak­ing up at 5:30, show­ing my uni­form ironed every night,” she says.

Now, Riddles is pres­id­ent of her class, a mem­ber of the school’s Cot­ton Blos­som Sing­ers, and works part time in the ra­dio stu­dio, where she reads the morn­ing an­nounce­ments. She also plays vol­ley­ball and bas­ket­ball, and runs track.

She’s only halfway through her ju­ni­or year, but has already ap­plied to two col­leges. Her dream is to at­tend Baylor Uni­versity in Waco, Texas. She loves Texas and wants to go to a small Chris­ti­an uni­versity. Maybe she’ll study broad­cast journ­al­ism or mu­sic. She loves singing and learn­ing to play dif­fer­ent in­stru­ments.

In her dorm room, she has a gui­tar, a ca­jon drum, and a ukulele.

Riddles picks up her ukulele—nick­named Sam­antha—and be­gins strum­ming.

There is power in the name of Je­sus, she sings. There is power in the name of Je­sus, to break every chain, break every chain, break every chain. To break every chain, break every chain, break every chain.

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