Laurence Clifton Jones is a name you might not recognize, but once you hear his story, you’ll never forget it again. He was one of America’s greatest teachers, who risked everything to reach those who needed his help the most, while changing hearts for the better everywhere he went.
Jones was born in St. Joseph, Missouri on November 21, 1884. Coming from a family of educators, it seemed quite likely that he might show an interest in the field as well, and he did.
A Young Man On A Mission
Jones graduated from the University of Iowa in 1908 and was immediately offered a position with the prestigious Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. However, he turned that offer down, and he decided to got out and seek out the most needy students he could find instead.
Jones took a job for a short time teaching at a small school for African American students. Not long after, his calling led him to Mississippi where he would begin a legacy that he at the time could not even imagine.
Jones traveled to Piney Woods, Mississippi with a vision to teach those less fortunate. It was his God-given mission, he believed, and with a few books and $1.65 to his name, Jones boarded a train bound for the area, where the illiteracy rate was over 80%.
The Seed Was Planted
The humble man arrived and immediately started his own school, which consisted of three students and a stump desk underneath a cedar tree. It was 1909, and although his school had no walls, it was called the Piney Woods Country Life School.
Jones was teaching the kids of former slaves and poor black farmers who had no means to send their children to regular school. Eventually, a former slave who had been freed gave Jones a sheep shed and some land so he was able to move his school indoors.
All who wanted to learn were welcome. Tuition was often paid in the form of food and goods from the family farms of his students. But those who had nothing to give were never turned away.
The curriculum in the beginning was heavy on teaching life skills. Jones was not ignorant to the reality that many of his students had never been given the opportunity or upbringing that would have left them more prepared for successful daily life. Jones gradually embedded academic subjects into his teaching as time went on.
He turned murderers into givers.
In 1918, Jones faced an angry mob of white men who wanted to hang him. However, he not only talked his way out of a lynching but convinced the men to gather donations to support his school.
Jones once said, “No man can force me to stoop low enough to hate him,” according to Dale Carnegie in his book “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.”
Music For Money
Jones taught regularly, but when he wasn’t teaching he was traveling. He wanted his message of hope through education to be heard by everyone in the country. He was often accompanied by musical groups made up of Piney Wood students who would perform for donations to their school.
Jones’ passion for education went far beyond his classroom and his own school. He never missed an opportunity to help in any way he could—his focus was always on those who were easily ignored and left behind by society.
Growth Brings New Opportunity
Jones was then informed that there was a need for a school for blind African-American children. He stepped up to the challenge, along with Martha Louise Foxx, and opened The Mississippi Blind School for Negroes in 1929—an extension of the Piney Woods School.
Both Foxx and Jones made sure that the school was built with help from those who would benefit from such an institution. Students assisted in its construction and in designing agricultural curriculum. There was no part of the school that did not include an investment on the part of the students. Foxx and Jones also made sure that they would be able to welcome any student.
A Model Of Success
The school was such a success that teachers would come from everywhere to visit and learn about what Jones and Foxx had created.
Helen Keller was one of those famous visitors, and it was her influence that helped convince the Mississippi legislature to give funding to The Mississippi Blind School for Negroes in Jackson. Piney Woods School became a model of inspiration for schools being built all around the country.
Jones never lost his focus on helping the less fortunate, and he ensured the sustainability of Piney Woods School through his continued fundraising efforts.
A Priceless Legacy
In 1954, Jones appeared on the popular television show, “This Is Your Life.” The show centered around the telling a story of one person’s life in each episode and was always a surprise to the recipient of such accolades. After Jones’ story was aired, donations totaling over $800,000 poured in for the school, allowing Jones to create an endowment fund that would last for generations.
Piney Woods School was solid in its foundation thanks to Laurence Clifton Jones, who first sat under a cedar tree with three students and followed his passion and life mission. The school remains open to this very day.
The video below is the 1954 episode of Jones’ appearance on “This Is Your Life.”
Watch his story below: