Laurence Clifton Jones was the founder of and a major figure in the Piney Woods Country Life School, an ambitious institution for African Americans on the edge of Rankin County, near Braxton in Simpson County. Born in St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1888, Jones received his education in Iowa before moving south to answer, as he wrote in his 1922 book, Piney Woods and Its Story, “the cries of my people for the opportunities of education which were being denied them.” An admirer and correspondent of Booker T. Washington, Jones believed that African Americans needed to work for their education and gain practical skills that would help them in their work. Students labored to build and keep up the school, and the curriculum concentrated on manual training, farming, carpentry, cooking, and sewing.
While teaching in Hinds County, Jones visited the Piney Woods area, where he heard Sunday school leaders discussing how they had long wanted to begin a high school for African American students. The Piney Woods Country Life School opened in 1909, and Jones received a charter for the school in 1913. Along with five teachers, including his wife, Grace Allen Jones, whom he married in 1912, the school was soon teaching African American students from throughout southern Mississippi, Florida, and Louisiana.
Like Washington, Robert Holtzclaw, and other African American educational leaders, Jones spent much of his time and effort raising funds, both in Mississippi and in the North, especially Iowa. He cultivated friendships with numerous donors and employed the first Jeanes Foundation teacher in the state.
Jones described most of his dealings with whites in Mississippi as cordial and positive. He consistently referred to white men and women who donated money or time to the school as “southern white friends.” But on at least one occasion, angry whites interpreted his heated language at a revival meeting as a challenge to white supremacy and threatened to lynch him. By the 1930s Jones was praising interracial groups and speaking optimistically of white Mississippians who had given up their opposition to African American education.
Jones lived long enough to see his success lead to a bit of celebrity. In the 1950s his life was the subject of two biographies, and he appeared frequently on radio, along with the Piney Woods Singers, and on television. A 1954 appearance on Ralph Edwards’s This Is Your Life turned into a successful fund-raising campaign when the show included an appeal for donations. He remained at the school’s helm until 1974, just a year before he died.
- Beth Day, The Little Professor of Piney Woods (1955)
- Alferdteen B. Harrison, Piney Woods School: An Oral History (1982)
- Laurence C. Jones, The Bottom Rail (1935)
- Laurence C. Jones, Piney Woods and Its Story (1922); Laurence C. Jones, The Spirit of the Piney Woods (1931)
- Neil McMillen, Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (1990)
- Leslie Harper Purcell, Miracle in Mississippi (1956)