Remembering Laurence C. Jones during Black History Month

MHS graduate founded famed African-American school

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Laurence C. Jones (1882-1975) was the first African-American to graduate from Marshalltown High School. In 1909 he founded the Piney Woods Country School in rural Mississippi to teach impoverished black youths trades. Today the facility operates as a boarding school, open to students regardless of race or religion, in grades 9-12.

Laurence C. Jones passed away nearly 42 years ago, but his devotion to the education of African-American youth continues today at the Piney Woods Country Life School, an institution he founded in 1909 with less than two dollars to his name, and just three students to teach in a sheep shed, which had been donated by a freed slave. His legacy as an educator has been likened to that of Booker T. Washington. In honor of Black History Month, the Times-Republican looks back on the life of the beloved educator who was the first African-American to graduate from Marshalltown High School.

Laurence Clifton Jones was born Nov. 21, 1882, in St. Joseph, Missouri. His father worked as a porter at the Pacific House hotel. When he was 15 years old, he relocated to Marshalltown to live with an aunt and uncle. In 1903, Jones became the first African-American to graduate from Marshalltown High School. He recalled how getting the opportunity to pen his graduation class song was “the first time anyone had confidence in me.”

Jones then moved to Iowa City, where he graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in philosophy. Inspired by the methods of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, he left Iowa, accepting a teaching position at Utica Institute in Mississippi. However, in traveling throughout that state, he came upon rural Rankin County, which had an 80 percent illiteracy rate. Jones was determined to improve the lot of these impoverished African-Americans. Learning of Jones’ ambitions, a local freed slave named Ed Taylor gave him 40 acres of land and an old sheep shed to hold classes. Jones returned to Iowa to raise funds for his education efforts, finding patronage from several wealthy white business people including Capt. Asa Turner, Iowa Lumber giant William O. Finkbine, Dena Maytag of the appliance fortune, Irene Fosness and Susie Sower.

With only three students, Jones established the Piney Woods Country Life School in the unincorporated town of Piney Woods, located 21 miles south of Jackson. The student body, who resided on location, learned trades such as farming, carpentry and construction. Students also helped construct several of the school’s facilities.

Jones wed Grace Morris Allen in 1912, a woman who became instrumental in the running of the school.

According to the book “Outside In: African-American History in Iowa,” “The connection between Jones and Iowa proved valuable for the students in this rural Mississippi school. Understanding that midwestern farmers practiced a different system of farm production and management and that they applied the latest agricultural research to their operations, Jones sent many of his students to Iowa to work and study with white farmers.”

Jones survived an attempted lynching in 1917 while preaching at a church, after a group of whites overheard him call for the empowerment of black people. In the book “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living” author Dale Carnegie wrote, “As Laurence Jones talked with sincere and moving eloquence as he pleaded, not for himself but his cause, the mob began to soften. Finally, an old Confederate veteran in the crowd said: ‘I believe this boy is telling the truth. I know the white men whose names he has mentioned. He is doing a fine work. We have made a mistake. We ought to help him instead of hang him.’ The Confederate veteran passed his hat through the crowd [for donations].”

In 1920, Jones acquired the Bystander, an Iowa African-American newspaper founded in 1894. However, he sold it after two years of ownership.

In 1929, Jones hired Martha Louise Morrow Foxx to serve as principal of the Mississippi Blind School for Negroes, situated on the campus of Piney Woods. Jones made sure the blind students learned trades and were fully integrated into the running of the school. Impressed with the operation, Helen Keller visited Piney Woods in 1945, later going before the Mississippi State Legislature to appeal for funding. Five years later, the school for the blind expanded and moved to Jackson.

Jones also took an interest in music and led several of the school’s singing groups including Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, the Cotton Blossom Singers and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

Piney Woods Country School’s enrollment continued to climb, but finances were always needed. In 1954, Jones went on the television show “This Is Your Life” where he was the guest of honor. Several people from his past appeared on the show, including MHS classmate Laura Carney and former principal Ellis Graff. On the air, Jones asked each viewer at home to send one dollar to the school for support. He eventually raised $700,000. Upon his death on July 13, 1975, the school had 250 students, 42 teachers and was situated on 2,000 acres of land, with a seven million dollar endowment. Jones was buried under the cedar trees near the sheep shed where he first held classes.

Jones earned honorary doctorate degrees from Clarke College, Cornell College, the University of Dubuque and Otterbein College. He also received an honorary Master of Arts from the Tuskegee Institute, plus recognition from the University of Iowa. In 1981, he was inducted into the Mississippi Hall of Fame.

Today, Piney Woods School is the largest of four historically African-American boarding schools in the country, educating youth of all backgrounds, in grades 9-12.

Jones was such good friends with Susie Sower, that when she died in 1952, she stipulated in her will that if the Historical Society of Marshall County is ever unable to maintain the Glick-Sower House (her childhood home located at 201 W. State St. in Marshalltown), management will be turned over to the Piney Woods School.


Contact Sara Jordan-Heintz at 641-753-6611 or sjordan@timesrepublican.com


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