From its 1909 founding in a corn shed in rural Rankin County to its being profiled as one of the finest boarding schools in the country by U.S. News & World Report, the Piney Woods School has depended on individual, foundation and corporate support for all of its funding. Today, Piney Woods School provides an academic core of mathematics, history, science, English and social studies to some 300 black high school students on a campus covering 50 acres. An additional 1,950 acres consists of lakes, farmland and towering pine trees.
All of the students are on scholarship and “our board mandates that at least 60% of our student body must come from a low socio-economic background,” according to Kay Garrett, director of foundation and corporate relations. And each student must work 10 hours a week to defray cost of tuition.
Not long after Lawrence Jones founded Piney Woods, using a log as a desk, he approached Ed Taylor, one of the few black farmers in the area who owned his own farm and had monetary resources. Taylor had watched Jones’ efforts with skepticism but he finally came around and told Jones, “I’ll give you that old sheep shed if you think you can do something with it. And I’ll give you the 40 acres around it where you’re teaching now… and $50. By the looks of you, you could use it for food, if not for the school.”
Taylor became the first in nearly a century-long line of Piney Woods benefactors.
In the 1920s, one of Piney Woods’ principal supporters was Mrs. Dena Maytag, wife of the founder of the Maytag Company. Members of the Maytag family still support the school.
In 1954, the Rotary Club made it possible for Jones to be the special guest on the popular TV show “This Is Your Life,” hosted by Ralph Edwards. During the program, Edwards asked that each listener send $1 to the Piney Woods School. Listeners donated $700,000, and this became the basis of a continuing endowment.
“Millions of dollars were raised as a result, and that has been our endowment,” Garrett said. “But now, many of those donors have died.”
Garrett added that, over the years, Piney Woods has been better known out of state than in the state. The school is now working to change that.
To provide for a future donor base of individuals, Piney Woods is building a database of individuals in the state. And the school “has begun a new initiative in building partnerships with community businesses that we hope will result in mutual benefits, including positive press and mentorship,” Garrett said. “Entergy will visit in the near future to discuss this initiative.”
Other Mississippi businesses that donate to Piney Woods include:
• Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Mississippi
• BM&W Prosthetics & Orthotics, LLC
• Mockbee Hall & Drake
• The Clarion-Ledger
National corporate donors include:
• Deutsche Post World New USA (DHL)
• Coca Cola
• International Paper Co.
• Jessie Ball duPont Foundation
• W.C. English Foundation
Piney Woods calls itself a non-denominational, Christian-oriented school. Throughout its history, the school has received help from religious institutions and organizations. Building on the basis of this support, the school has established a goal of at least 1,000 churches, synagogues and other religious institutions contributing $1,000 a year.
Among prominent figures who have helped the school are Morgan Freeman, Oprah Winfrey, author Bebe Moore Campbell and attorney Richard Scruggs. The late Charles Schultz donated a girls’ dormitory, the Charles M. Schultz “Snoopy” Hall, and established a scholars fund to provide a way for donors to help needy students.
“Our board of directors is an active, working part of Piney Woods,” Garrett said. “It has a budget committee that handles investments for the school.”
The board’s 29 members come from 12 states, in addition to Mississippi. An office of fiscal affairs head by a vice president, Lee Unger, takes care of the school’s day-to-day financial matters.
“Many of our students are from poor rural regions where a top-notch education is not available,” according to Dr. Charles H. Beady Jr., Piney Wood’s president. “Others are from [inner-cities] where violence and drugs distract from academics. At Piney Woods, students focus on learning and have an opportunity to get into good colleges.” Some 98% of Piney Woods’ students are accepted by colleges. (Two percent join the armed forces.) Graduates have attended such schools as Princeton, Smith, Harvard, Howard, Amherst, Morehouse and Oberlin, among others.
“Piney Woods is not a school for troubled students,” Garrett said. “In fact, we do not accept students who have been in trouble with the law. Our students are expected to perform to high academic and moral standards.”
The place where Jones first began teaching barefoot, backwoods students is marked by a cedar tree — a replacement for the original cedar that was struck by lightning and destroyed in 1985 — and Jones and his wife are buried nearby. Also buried near the cedar is Taylor, Piney Woods’ first and long-time benefactor.
Anyone interested in becoming a benefactor can contact the Office of Institutional Advancement at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at email@example.com.