America's Largest Black Boarding School Is Thriving

This Mississippi institution was founded to educate the illiterate children of freed slaves. It's still helping disadvantaged students today.

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 got into schools 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 from Ethiopia and the Caribbean. Everyone receives tuition assistance or a scholarship to help cover the $23,000 annual tuition. 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 Chicago's 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 Rights at the education department. He left the latter job last year and has since returned to Piney Woods to serve as its 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 today is down from a peak of about 500 students decades ago (it used to offer classes in grades kindergarten through 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 alumni 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.

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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," Crossley says. 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 bigoted people like Vardaman 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 the 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, is 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."