Laurence Clifton Jones (1884-1975)
He was the founder and long-time president of The Piney Woods Country Life School, in Piney Woods, Mississippi. In 1909, Dr. Jones, a recent graduate from the University of Iowa, learned about the high illiteracy rate of 80%, in rural Rankin County, Mississippi. Identifying that need as his personal mission, he stepped off the train and walked into the heart of Piney Woods. He carried only a few clean shirts, a Bible, a couple of textbooks, his diploma, and a $1.65. With little more than a dream and faith that he was following God’s call, He started The Piney Woods Country Life School. It began first under a cedar tree and then moved to an abandoned sheep shed. His goal was to educate the sons and daughters of impoverished black sharecroppers. Some of his first students were children and grandchildren of former slaves. He succeeded against all odds battling racism, tornadoes, financial woes, and even an attempted lynching. In 1918, Dr. Jones faced an angry mob, ready to lynch because they felt he was “stirring up trouble.” Dr. Jones was able to persuade to them to spare his life and even “pass the hat” and donate money to his school.
Known as “The Little Professor of Piney Woods”, Dr. Jones had a “head, heart, and hands” philosophy. His philosophy addressed educating the mind, bringing alive a spiritual passion and required the students to develop three skills by which they could support themselves. He strongly believed in the “dignity of labor.” Many students prepared to work hard. They came down the piney woods road and arrived at the campus, in a mule drawn wagon, loaded with vegetables and goods, for their tuition.
In 1929, after learning of the need for a blind school for African-American children, Dr. Jones brought Ms. Martha Louise Foxx to Piney Woods, to be the first teacher and principal of the Mississippi Blind School for Negroes at The Piney Woods School. With little funding and many challenges, The Piney Woods School was open to all who would come. Despite being blind, everyone was expected to work. Students built school buildings, learned canning, and developed agricultural programs for beef and poultry. The girls learned sewing, basket-making, and weaving. During the Great Depression and through the end of World War II, the school faced tremendous hardships. Determined to not losing any of their programs, Dr. Jones, an outstanding fundraiser, took to the roads and traveled all over the country, sharing his vision. With the help of his wife, Grace Jones, set forth student music groups to help raise money for the school. The world-renowned Cotton Blossom Singers, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm swing band, Bluesman Sam Myers, and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, got their beginning during these challenging years.
In the 1940’s, blind students fully participated in school activities, becoming valued members of the Piney Woods community. Upon reaching high school, they were fully integrated into the regular high school classes, that was Dr. Jones and Ms. Foxx’s true legacy to the blind students at Piney Woods. They pioneered the nation’s first mainstream program for blind students. The success of this “experiment” forever changed the stigma of blindness for those who participated.
Hellen Keller visited the school and marveled at the work of Dr. Jones and Ms. Foxx. She appeared before the Mississippi legislature and appealed for funding for blind students, in 1950. The following year, the Mississippi School for Blind Negroes was moved to a campus in Jackson. It was later integrated with white blind students. Dr. Jones was greatly honored for all his contributions, received honorary doctorates from Clark College, Cornell College, University of Dubuque, and Otterbein College. He also earned an honorary Master of Arts from the Tuskegee Institute. His alma mater, The University of Iowa recognized him as their most outstanding alumni in 1954. In 1970, Dr. Jones received the Silver Buffalo Award, the highest commendation of the Boy Scouts of America. In 1981, Dr. Jones was inducted into the Mississippi Hall of Fame for his contributions to the state of Mississippi. He was also the author of several books, including Up Through Difficulties (1910), Piney Woods and Its Story (1923), and the Bottom Rail (1933), respectively. Dr. Jones died in 1975.