Born a slave, Charlotta Pyles spent her life fighting for her freedom and the freedom of others and planting the seeds that would expand access to education for African Americans, including the founding of the historic Piney Woods Country Life School. The offspring of a Seminole mother and a slave father, Charlotta was also a slave (along with her twelve children) on a Kentucky plantation. The owner bequeathed the family to his daughter, Frances, with the expectation she would emancipate them, but Frances’s brothers had other ideas. Faced with ongoing court battles over her ownership, jail time, and separation from her children, Charlotta and her family fled North, accompanied by Frances. They settled in Iowa, but Charlotta was determined to rescue two sons-in-law who had been left behind. She traveled East to earn funds speaking against the evils of slavery and met with Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and other abolitionist activists. In six months, she had made enough to purchase the freedom of her daughters’ husbands. Her home in Keokuk, Iowa became a stop on the Underground Railroad, but the fight for civil liberties continued after the Civil War. In 1869, Charlotta’s daughter was instrumental in integrating Iowa public schools. A granddaughter, Grace Allen Morris, became the first African American to graduate from her high school in Burlington, Iowa and later founded the Grace M. Allen Industrial Life School there. In 1912, she married Laurence Clifton Jones and helped him establish what is now known as The Piney Woods School in Mississippi.
Grace Morris Allen Jones was born in Iowa on January 7, 1876 into a well-off, educated family. She was the first African American to graduate from Burlington High School in 1891. In 1902 she founded the Grace M. Allen Industrial Life School in Burlington. She married Laurence C. Jones in 1912 and became a teacher at The Piney Woods Country Life School with classes in English, textiles, and basket weaving. (You can still see some of her work in the museum on the Piney Woods campus.) She was loved by all in the Piney Woods community. When a flu epidemic swept through nearby Braxton, she volunteered to nurse the sick--black and white.
Laurence Jones liked to use the story of his family’s housing situation as a lesson in modesty and progress. He and Grace began their marriage living in a one-room log cabin at the Piney Woods School before moving into the corner room of a school building, another room in an academic building, an old mill house, and finally a comfortable cottage in 1922. They named the cottage the Community House because it was the setting for so many meetings.
Heartbroken by students who arrived (some walking 6 miles even in cold weather with no shoes) without money for tuition, Grace began to go out to raise money for the school with Dr. Jones. Traveling in the North, they were often denied the use of restrooms and refused service in restaurants. Through it all, Grace moved with such quiet dignity that the oppressor was usually the one left embarrassed.
Grace Allen Jones quickly became crucial to The Piney Woods School not only as a teacher and speaker but also as an organizer of clubs for women. She founded and led Mothers’ Clubs that set standards for and discussed child rearing, cooking, quilting, and sewing. From that start, Ms. Jones used women’s clubs to address important issues in Mississippi. She helped start an American Red Cross organization for African Americans. She made connections between the Mothers’ Clubs and the Mississippi State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, and as that group’s president in 1920, she urged more communities to start women’s clubs. Those groups worked to improve child care, to teach African American history, to start libraries for African American children, and to provide resources so that physically handicapped African American children could learn.
Grace started the Cotton Blossom singers to raise funds for the school, and they toured the country, sleeping in tents. During bad weather, she made the rounds, pleading for a church basement, a railroad station, or anywhere dry for the young people to sleep. The money she helped raise built dormitories and bought school supplies, clothing, and food for the students who had none. When Grace was not touring with the Cotton Blossoms, she was working for prison reform in Mississippi. Through her efforts a reform school was eventually built so that black children would not be thrown into jail with hardened criminals. From 1918 to 1923 she was president of the Mississippi Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs and was engaged in activities to help African American women and children. In 1923, she organized a state conference on health and welfare to combat the growing threat of tuberculosis among people of color, resulting in a new wing being built at the
Sanatorium facility to accommodate black patients.
Grace and Laurence C. Jones had two boys, Laurence Jr. and Turner. In 1923, they adopted a little girl who began to travel with Grace on her musical tours with the Cotton Blossom Singers. Grace died of pneumonia in 1928.
After the sudden death of her mother, Grace, Helen (at the age of four) became part of the general population of The Piney Woods School where she enjoyed music and special programs. She was a member of the school’s traveling and fundraising band, the Cotton Blossom Singers, which was directed by Consuela Carter.
Helen Jones Woods was a founding member of The Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated (including Black, White, Hispanic, Native American, and Chinese members), all-woman jazz band. The band, formed by Laurence Jones in 1937 at The Piney Woods School (and first known as “The Swinging Rays of Rhythm”), was led by Consuela Carter and toured extensively throughout the eastern United States to raise money for the school. The Sweethearts soon became professional musicians and played in theaters and ballrooms across the country, including the Apollo Theater and Howard Theater in Washington, DC where they set a box office record of 35,000 patrons in 1941. They also toured war-torn Europe with the USO, making a place for themselves in a world ruled by gender and racial prejudice. At one time, Helen was known as one of the top trombonists in the country.
After the band dissolved in 1949, Woods traveled to Omaha where she eventually settled down and married William A. Woods, the first Black man to get an accounting degree from Creighton University. Woods served as a registered nurse at Douglas County Hospital for over 30 years, retiring in the 1970s.
Woods was inducted into the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame in 2007. In 2011, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm were honored in Washington, DC by the Smithsonian Institution, and Helen was there, regaling the audience with anecdotes from her colorful career. Only a handful of recordings survive, but you can listen to the Sweethearts at the NPR website under the program “America's 'Sweethearts': An All-Girl Band That Broke Racial Boundaries.” The moniker Bandleader Earl Hines gave the Sweethearts is especially meaningful at this time in history. He called them “the first Freedom Riders.”
Helen spent her life helping others because of the example set by her parents and The Piney Woods School, and the school held deep meaning for her.
A teen mom in Omaha, Nebraska, Catherine L. Hughes never graduated from college. She managed to land a position at the local radio station. Climbing the ladder, Hughes moved to Washington D.C. where she lectured at Howard University and became the general manager of the college radio station. Along with her husband, she bought her own radio station. Upon divorce, the single mother slept on the station floor with her son as they couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. The station, Radio One, grew into a media empire.
Cathy Hughes is a dynamic, media pioneer who demonstrates the power of one – one woman, one vision, one company – Urban One, formerly known as Radio One. As Founder and Chairperson of Urban One, Inc., the largest African-American owned and operated, broadcast company in the nation, Hughes’ unprecedented career has spawned a multi-media conglomerate that generates original content across the spectrum of radio, television and digital media. Her humble beginnings in Omaha, Nebraska, were not a deterrent to her success but rather part of the catalyst that fueled her ambition to empower African Americans with information and to tell stories from their perspective.
Hughes began her radio career in her hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, at KOWH (AM), a station owned by a group of African-American professionals. In 1971, she moved to Washington, D.C., and became a lecturer in the newly established School of Communications at Howard University. During her tenure, she served as General Sales Manager at WHUR, Howard University Radio, increasing the station’s revenue from $250,000 to $3 million in her first year. She also became the first woman Vice President and General Manager of a station in the nation’s capital and created the format known as the “Quiet Storm,” which revolutionized urban radio and was aired on over 480 stations nationwide. In 1980, Hughes purchased her flagship station WOL-AM, in Washington D.C., and pioneered yet another innovative format – “24-Hour Talk from a Black Perspective.” With the theme, “Information is Power,” she served as the station’s morning show host for 11 years.
In 1999, Cathy Hughes became the first African-American woman to chair a publicly held corporation, following the sale of more than seven million shares of common stock to the public. Along with her son and business partner Alfred Liggins, III, she grew what was then Radio One into a multi-media company that became an urban radio market leader with more than 60 stations across the country comprised of hip hop, R&B, gospel and talk radio formats. It became the first African-American company in radio history to dominate several major markets simultaneously, and Hughes became the first woman to own a radio station that was ranked number one in a major market. Radio One also diversified and launched the television network TV One in 2004 and entered the digital space with Interactive One, now iOne Digital, in 2007.
As a result of her success, Hughes has earned hundreds of prestigious awards and recognitions. They include: the naming of Cathy Hughes Boulevard in her hometown of Omaha, Nebraska; the 2018 Lowry Mays Excellence in Broadcasting Award; the naming of the Cathy Hughes School of Communications at Howard University in 2016; the ADColor Lifetime Achievement Award; the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Chair’s Phoenix Award; the NAACP Chairman’s Award; the Giant of Broadcasting Award; the Uncommon Height of Excellence Award; the Essence Women Shaping the World Award; the Ida B. Wells Living Legacy Award; and induction into the American Advertising Federation Hall of Fame.
In May 2017, Radio One’s name was changed to Urban One, to reflect the market it serves. Urban One, Inc. is now the parent corporation of several subsidiaries: TV One, the largest African-American owned, cable television network in the country and current home of the hit shows UnSung and Uncensored; Reach Media, which presents syndicated radio programs like the Rickey Smiley Morning Show and the Tom Joyner Morning Show; iOne Digital, home of several popular websites including Hello Beautiful and Cassius; and One Solution, a marketing firm that allows advertisers to take advantage of all of the assets under the Urban One brand.
Cathy Hughes’ philanthropic work is on par with her success in the business arena as well. she is a champion for the hungry and homeless, a mentor to countless women, and an advocate dedicated to empowering minority communities. Her passion for education is evident in her efforts to continue her family’s work and legacy at The Piney Woods School where she is a board member and generous donor to the school founded by her grandparents.