The Decline of Black Boarding Schools in the U.S.: From 100 to 4 since ‘Brown’

Located approximately 20 miles south of Jackson, Mississippi, Piney Woods remains among the few remaining Black boarding schools in the United States. Established in 1909 by Laurence Clifton Jones with just $1.65, Piney Woods aimed to provide educational opportunities for the illiterate offspring of impoverished Black sharecroppers. Despite facing hostility during the Jim Crow era, the school persevered and garnered support from unexpected sources, allowing it to flourish over a century.

Piney Woods, a co-educational Christian college preparatory high school, spans over 2,000 acres of land featuring a 250-acre farm tended to by its student body of about 100. With a tuition cost of $45,000 annually, financial assistance is extended to all students. Dr. William Crossley, Piney Woods’ fifth president and an alumnus, shared insights on the school’s endurance and its significance to his personal educational journey in an exclusive interview with Sierra Lyons from The 74.

Inquiries have been edited for brevity and clarity.

“In an era prior to the seminal ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, around 100 Black boarding schools existed nationwide. As one of the surviving four, what significance does this hold for you as a leader?” queried Dr. Crossley, emphasizing the ongoing necessity of providing high-quality education to underserved youth, especially those from low-income and minority backgrounds.

“Piney Woods boasts a 250-acre farm along with over 1,000 acres of wildlife. How do these resources contribute to students’ experiential learning? Can you elucidate a typical day for a student?” queried Dr. Crossley, describing the immersive learning environment where students interact with a variety of animals and engage in hands-on agricultural tasks as part of their daily routine.

“Explicitly, why has Piney Woods endured where other institutions haven’t? What factors have enabled its continuity amidst challenges?” inquired Dr. Crossley, highlighting the school’s adaptive approach in aligning its mission with evolving educational landscapes, the steadfast support of its alumni, and the independent governance ensuring sustained operation.

“As the first alumnus to serve as principal, how has your prior tenure as a student influenced your educational perspectives, particularly in a rural Mississippi setting?” queried Dr. Crossley, reflecting on the transformative impact of Piney Woods on his personal trajectory and commitment to expanding educational opportunities for all, regardless of background.

“Addressing the financial hardship of marginalized students, how has Piney Woods maintained an equitable and inclusive environment ensuring educational access irrespective of economic constraints?” queried Dr. Crossley, underlining the school’s affordability through scholarships and community support, which facilitates a diverse student body enriched by its commitment to educational equity.

“Could you provide insight into the cost implications of attending Piney Woods?” queried Dr. Crossley, citing a comprehensive annual fee of $45,000 encompassing all student expenses and activities without additional charges, making it an economically viable option compared to many boarding schools nationwide.

“As the inaugural principal who’s a former student, elucidate how your student experience shaped your educational perspective and propelled your dedication to fostering opportunities in rural Mississippi,” inquired Dr. Crossley, detailing the pivotal role of Piney Woods in catalyzing personal growth and instilling a passion for equitable access to education for all individuals.

“Having transitioned from a senior government position to returning to Piney Woods, how has this shift impacted your perspective on education and your direct engagement with students?” queried Dr. Crossley, highlighting the transition from policy-oriented work in Washington, D.C., to a transformative on-ground approach shaping individual lives and fostering educational empowerment.

“Given Piney Woods’ location in a state with a significant Black population, what unique educational needs should policymakers consider for rural Southern Black parents and students in educational discussions?” inquired Dr. Crossley, emphasizing the importance of fostering a supportive community that uplifts Black students, provides equitable opportunities, and promotes academic excellence, reframing the narrative from defense to empowerment.

“Reflecting on your legacy at Piney Woods, how do you envision leaving a lasting impact and enriching the school’s future beyond your tenure?” inquired Dr. Crossley, conveying a profound commitment to sustaining the school’s mission of community empowerment and educational excellence, resonating with the legacy of its founder, Laurence C. Jones, and the transformative impact on generations to come.

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