The Last Black Boarding School

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Protecting the legacy of Black education in America is a time-honored form of resistance. Established in 1909, The Piney Woods School is the oldest of just four remaining historically Black boarding schools in the United States. Twenty-one miles outside of Jackson, Mississippi, on 2,000 acres of land, 15 very distinct buildings with signature red roofs break through the uniformity of the lush green landscape. Mississippi’s only amphitheater is the graduation stage for a small class of 21 students who wait to shake hands with faculty before crossing over the threshold to college. The aged stones set firmly in the ground serve as a reminder that this place is established and firmly rooted. This is why a by-the-numbers overview hardly captures the essence of this sacred institution, a physical representation of the enduring importance of education.

Initially, these Black institutions became a bulwark against systemic injustices like segregation or the outright denial of access to education for many Black Americans. Black schools made thinking, imagining, and creating possible. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) like Howard, Spelman, and Morehouse are names that are easily recognized. Their marching bands and sports teams and homecoming celebrations are traditions that span generations. But a Black boarding school? Most people don’t even know they exist. After all, these secondary schools have been significantly less publicized than colleges and universities. But given the crucial development that happens before the age of 18, they are equally as important, if not more so.

piney woods school

Courtesy of Piney Woods School

The Piney Woods School, now.

piney woods school

Courtesy of Piney Woods School

The Piney Woods School, then.

The benefits of attending Piney Woods are also why a lot of Black students opt for HBCUs—namely, they are a safe space. Aside from that, rigorous academic and behavioral standards help to mold students into the best versions of themselves. Black institutions can teach the banned material. They are not going to sugarcoat the history of the slave trade or mince words about white supremacy. They are the anti-PragerU, the school learning materials designed to hijack history with rewrites that combat critical race theory. That’s part of the reason that Piney Woods students Taimya and Takira Adams, a graduating senior and rising junior respectively, ended up at the school. Taimya, the class of 2024’s valedictorian, requested that her mother send her to Piney Woods after several incidents at her predominately white school made her question the material she was being taught. “In fifth grade, I had an English teacher insinuate that slaves chose to be slaves—that they would rather be slaves than be free or go out and work on their own,” she says. As the daughter of a political advocate and outreach coordinator, Taimya knew that what she was hearing was wrong, but she did not possess the deft language to express what she wanted to say. Instead, she asked to go to a different kind of school, one that her aunt had attended and always talked about, one where there were Black kids and Black teachers. So she enrolled at Piney Woods. Now, she says, “I feel like I’m going to go out into the world knowing who I am, where I come from, and the history of my people in this country.”

In 1908, post-Reconstruction and at the start of the Jim Crow era, Laurence Clifton Jones, a teacher from Missouri who had graduated from the University of Iowa, was distressed to learn that Mississippi had only a 20 percent literacy rate, meaning that the majority of the population could not read. Jones came from a family of educators and was so motivated that he opted to teach in Mississippi instead of at Tuskegee, a prestigious HBCU in Alabama. He endeavored to teach poor Black children how to read, beginning his quest with only three pupils. In 1909, a former slave named Ed Taylor gifted Jones land—40 acres to be exact—in rural Rankin County, Mississippi. Now equipped with ample space and an abandoned sheep shed, Jones had more room to teach children. The forgotten structure would get a new life and become the first schoolhouse at Piney Woods, and it’s still there today, along with Laurence Clifton Jones’ burial site.

a group of people posing for a photo

Courtesy of Piney Woods School

Piney Woods’ inaugural class of 1913.

With progress comes pushback, and Jones’ approach educating Black Mississippians did not sit well with the rest of the state. It is reported in author Dale Carnegie’s book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living that Jones, a famously persuasive orator, confronted a lynch mob in 1918, convincing residents that they would all benefit from a more educated Black population. It worked so well that not only did he survive the mob—he actually garnered donations from them to support the school. This is somewhat of an urban legend at Piney Woods, which now considers out-of-the-box thinking and leadership skills to be among the most important qualities for admission. The principles that Jones built the school on remain foundational for students, who live by the school motto: “The head, the heart, and the hands,” a metaphor for the symbiosis between academics, spirituality, and practical skills.

Every week, for one day, the students participate in “Work Wednesdays,” a relatively new addition to their schedules, where they swap out jobs around the school. They do everything from office admin work to mucking out stalls for the on-site livestock. The mere mention of it elicits a playful groan from Taimya. “The work is not a burden at all,” she says. “It’s fun to be rotated out and experience different jobs and see what different people do. Sometimes I’ll go to the farm, and that’s enjoyable too, because we get to ride horses and talk to the cows.”

piney woods school current student life

Courtesy of Piney Woods School

A current student at Piney Woods.

Tenisha Andrews, head of admissions at Piney Woods, echoes the emphasis on practical labor as part of the curriculum on the school grounds, which was historically used for farming. “We have our own zip code, we have our own store. Back in the day, we had dairy cows. They processed all the meat, they grew all their food and vegetables. We were completely able to run as a community, without any assistance from the outside. The children built the buildings by hand. We didn’t need any additional help. And that’s our goal: to get back to that point,” Andrews says. Another continuation of Jones’ legacy: “To make sure that every student had the opportunity for education, regardless of income,” she adds. “So, just because your parents can’t afford to send you to a posh private school, we believe that we can give every student here that type of education.”

Every Piney Woods student attends on scholarship, and finding the money can be “truly a challenge, to be honest,” Andrews admits. The weight of fundraising often falls on Dr. Will Crossley, Piney Woods’ president and a proud alum who returned to campus in 2014, after graduating in 1990. Each morning, Dr. Crossley starts the school day imparting inspirational words of wisdom to the student body at an assembly meeting, which is more sermon than speech. He says, “In an everyday sense, I know exactly what it’s like to be a student. At the same time, I also know the benefits of the rigorous academic program, our work program and other high expectations we have for our students. I know that what we do and what we ask of our students is hard work, but I also know—in a personal way—that it works.”

a group of people huddled over

Courtesy of Hulu/Andscape

A screen still from Sacred Soil: The Piney Woods School Story, a Hulu documentary about Piney Woods.

During her senior year at Piney Woods, the school helped Taimya get an opportunity to page at the Mississippi Legislature, where she spent a week observing first-hand what lawmakers were responsible for in her state. This experience opened her eyes. “Being from Mississippi, you can see daily the effects of racism and the still perpetuated notion of Black people in this state,” she says. The state has some of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, and the majority of the people in custody are Black. “It gives me hope that Piney Woods is educating us on these things, because the graduates of Piney Woods are going to be able to go into these spaces and combat newer racism,” she says, with a quiet confidence. She plans to major in political science and minor in vocal performance at Fisk University, an HBCU based in Tennessee. Her sister Takira lights up when she describes their plans for the future, “I want to go to Howard. I wanna major in English. I wanna minor in history, and then, I want to go to law school. After that, I want to start a firm with my sister. What I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid is become an author. I’ve been writing since I was in fourth grade, but I’m gonna do law first. Once I get in a good place financially, I’m going to start writing books for young Black girls.”

Before attending Piney Woods, Taimya attended a predominately white school in Mississippi. In 2019, when she was in eighth grade, she asked to transfer. After switching schools, she felt free from the demands of assimilation. “I can be my authentic self. I can like what I want or do what I want. I can have whatever passion I want or speak a certain way,” she says. In 2021, Takira joined her at Piney Woods. “It was rocky at first, but eventually I got used to it, because my home was here,” Takira says. “My sister was basically my home, and that made it easier for me to feel more comfortable here.” The boarding school experience is not meant for every student. It takes a unique kind of independence to leave home at 13 or 14 and live with strangers. Takira was considering not returning to Piney Woods because she was struggling with homesickness and feeling untethered without being able to see her sister whenever she wanted, because of the rules of the dorm. But she changed her mind after earning the highest GPA in every single class she took. “I have perseverance,” she says. “I needed to come back here, because what I was doing last year was the bare minimum…imagine what I could do at my full potential.”

This is the magic of Piney Woods and why institutions like this are necessary now more than ever, so that students like Taimya and Takira can continue to thrive. While a lot has changed since Laurence Clifton Jones ideated on what the school could and would be, the landscape for Black students in America is still a challenge. And this is where the numbers for Piney Woods do matter. Mississippi has the second highest poverty rate in the nation (topped only by Louisiana) and with that statistic also comes some of the worst education outcomes, though the state is diligently working to change those stats; in 2024, Mississippi was ranked 30th in the nation for education, its highest ever.

a person sitting in a chair

Courtesy of Hulu/Andscape

Another still from Sacred Soil: The Piney Woods School Story.

As Mississippi and other states grapple with education systems that, time and again, expose institutional racism and have failed their students, Piney Woods is the rare example that inspires hope for a better future. People all around the country are stepping up to help preserve its sacred legacy. Companies like Tesla have gifted solar panels to Piney Woods, which the students installed themselves, and a partnership with the National Center for Appropriate Technology provides hands-on sustainability farming training for the students. But more is needed. The scholarship fund at Piney Woods has a lofty goal of $2.5 million, which will provide support for helping to get new students at the school. For some perspective, the famed boarding school Deerfield Academy has a reported endowment of $840 million, as of 2023. The Massachusetts campus is also exorbitantly wealthy and overwhelmingly white. It is unclear when Deerfield integrated, but only 8 percent of the current student population is Black.

A place like Piney Woods that has served the Black community this long deserves more than respect—it deserves funding. More children need to experience the freedom and challenge of attending a Black school before they pursue college. In what’s perhaps the most enthusiastic endorsement of Piney Woods, Tamira says: “Anybody who needs a school [should] definitely come here. Not just because it’s life-changing, but because it’s a fun place. And it [feels] like a family. I just really love it. I really do.”

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