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.

What We're Following See More »
Rosen will Replace Rosenstein at DOJ
3 hours ago

"A Justice Department official said Monday that [deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein] planned to step down in mid-March for reasons unconnected to McCabe’s allegations. The administration on Tuesday announced that Trump is nominating Jeffrey Rosen — the deputy secretary of transportation, who worked previously at Kirkland & Ellis, the firm where Barr also previously worked — to replace him."

SCOTUS to Hear Major Water Case
3 hours ago

"The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to decide whether the Clean Water Act can prevent sewage plants from putting waste water into the ground if it flows from there into a river, bay or the ocean. The case from Hawaii is an important test of the reach of the federal government’s anti-pollution authority."

Trump Directs DoD to Launch Space Force
9 hours ago

"President Donald Trump signed a directive on Tuesday that ordered the Department of Defense create a Space Force as a sixth military branch. Known as Space Policy Directive 4 (SPD-4), the directive orders the Pentagon draft legislation for Congress that would create the Space Force as a part of the U.S. Air Force. This would establish the first military branch in 72 years. The Air Force is the nation's youngest branch and was added shortly after World War II."

Trump Tried to Put Ally in Charge of Investigation Targeting Him
9 hours ago

"As federal prosecutors in Manhattan gathered evidence late last year about President Trump’s role in silencing women with hush payments during the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump called Matthew G. Whitaker, his newly installed attorney general, with a question. He asked whether Geoffrey S. Berman, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York and a Trump ally, could be put in charge of the widening investigation, according to several American officials with direct knowledge of the call."

Bernie Sanders Declares Bid
19 hours ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.