Marshalltown Reformer Lifted African-Americans Out of Illiteracy
An Iowan named Laurence Jones always knew he wanted to help other African-Americans lead better lives.
Born in 1882, he loved music, poetry, books and theater while growing up in St. Joseph, Missouri. He raised and sold rabbits and pigeons and had a paper route.
But he was unhappy with the education he was receiving at his local school and moved to Marshalltown to live with an aunt and uncle.
In 1903, he became the first African-American to graduate from Marshalltown High School and was chosen to write a song for his class’ graduation. “For the first time I realized someone had confidence in me,” he recalled years later in one of his books.
He enrolled at the University of Iowa and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, but turned down an offer to teach at the Tuskegee Institute. Instead, he took a position at the Utica Institute, a small school for African-American children in Utica, Mississippi.
After two years there, he found his true calling during a visit to the state’s Piney Woods area, where he learned most residents didn’t know how to read and needed help to improve their means of basic survival.
His discovery changed his own life and the lives of countless others.
With two dollars to his name, Jones staked out a clearing in the woods about 20 miles southeast of Jackson. Using a tree stump for a desk, he taught his first student, a 16-year-old boy who sat on a log during lessons.
Two more boys joined the fledgling school the next day and brought more students with them in the following weeks. Some were children and grandchildren of former slaves.
In time, a formerly enslaved man named Ed Taylor gave Jones 40 acres of land and a deserted sheep shed to hold classes. Soon enough, Jones had support from local African-Americans, who wanted educational opportunities that were being denied to them, and business owners, who were interested in a school that could produce better workers.
As the number of students grew, so did the donations. People gave what they could afford — pennies, dollars, lumber and labor to fix up the sheep shed. Much of the school’s early support came from Iowans who responded to Jones’ call for donations, including clothing, books and blankets.
He also received support from several wealthy white-owned Iowa businesses, including the Finkbine Lumber Co. of Des Moines, which donated 800 wooded acres the company happened to own next to the school. Additional support came from abolitionist Capt. Asa Turner, agriculture expert Henry Wallace, Gov. William Larrabee and his wife, Anna.
In 1913, a charter was granted to Piney Woods Country Life School.
During the next 30 years, Jones traveled the country to raise funds and speak to churches, civic clubs and educational groups. Every year, he scraped together $80,000 for the school’s annual budget.
But Jones’ success didn’t come easily, and he battled racism, tornadoes and financial woes. By his own account in the school records, he faced down an angry mob in 1918 that was ready to lynch him because they thought he was “stirring up trouble.”
The school’s biggest break came in 1954 when Jones appeared on the popular Ralph Edwards television program, “This Is Your Life.” Edwards asked his national audience to send $1 donations to help Piney Woods, raising more than $700,000.
Jones continued to work on the school’s behalf well into his 70s and received honorary doctorates from Clark College, Cornell College, University of Dubuque and Otterbein College.
He also earned an honorary master’s degree from the Tuskegee Institute. The University of Iowa named him its most outstanding alumni in 1954.
In 1970, Jones received the Silver Buffalo Award, the highest commendation of the Boy Scouts of America. In 1981, he was inducted into the Mississippi Hall of Fame for his contributions to the state of Mississippi.
Jones died in 1975 but his legacy endures.
Today, Piney Woods sits on a 60-acre campus nestled among 2,000 wooded acres of rolling hills, forest, fields and lakes. The school serves students from 28 states, Mexico, the Caribbean and several African nations, and has a 98 percent success rate in placing graduating seniors into colleges and universities.
— Jeff Morgan, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs