Thursday, March 01, 2012

Nonprofit Thursday: Phillips Exeter and Piney Woods

 A few days ago, I was reintroduced to a fellow longtime Clevelander. As such folk are wont to do, he asked where I went to high school. When I said I had attended a prep school in New Hampshire, he asked which one. When I replied “Phillips Exeter”, he asked how I liked it. There is no simple answer to that question.

I told him that I had learned a lot but that the school in that era had not been ready to meet the needs of the few black students it was admitting, that the personal and psychological adjustments I was called upon to make were a hard price to pay and that my three years there exacted a rough psychosocial toll. When he next asked if there were any black boarding schools in the country, I said I thought there were about four, one of which was fabled Piney Woods Country Life School near Jackson, Mississippi.

Now I probably had not thought or heard about Piney Woods in twenty years, so you can imagine the jolt my sense of karma received when I found the following story in an email I received this morning in support of a joint fundraising appeal for the ongoing work of The National Institute For Restorative Justice and Deuteronomy 8:3 Café Books and Music.

Some quick background on the Institute and the Café:
Deuteronomy opened in Cleveland’s Hough area ten years ago on New Year’s Day, 2002.  Seven years ago, it began a series of public dialogues  that focused on issues of socio-economic and legal justice. The National Institute For Restorative Justice was established last May and incorporated as a non-profit institution as an outgrowth of those dialogues.

In conjunction with the pending celebration of the Institute's first anniversary in May, and the tenth  year of the independent bookstore’s community service,  the two organizations have launched $1, $10 & $60 Friends Campaign.  [The $60 relates to the founder Mittie Jordan’s just attained milestone age.]

Here is the story in Mittie’s email, explaining why even small contributions are important:

When we announced the campaign during a recent program, we were commended by one of our donors for creating an opportunity for every level of participation.  And if you think that a dollar can't make a difference, consider this incredibly inspiring story.

One hundred and three years ago, a young man stepped off the train in Rankin County Mississippi to set out on a daunting journey to start a school for the families of poor, Black sharecroppers.  In his possession: his newly acquired University of Iowa diploma, his Bible, a couple of clean shirts, $1.65, and a noble obligation. 

On first thought, I would say, that was all that he had.  But, knowing the fortitude with which he faced his pursuit over the next sixty-six years of his life, he was also undoubtedly armed with a deep-rooted commitment, and an abiding faith; one that pushed through every conceivable obstacle that got in his way.   A town full of "naysayers," two destructive tornados, a fire, a lynch mob, and the daily reality of lack of funds did not turn him away from his mission.  Today, the unwavering determination and legacy of Laurence Clifton Jones stands firm as The Piney Woods Country Life School. 

The story of Laurence Jones, his wife Grace Allen Jones, and the brave youth, men and women who succeeded against all odds - including threat of life and limb - is one that must be told again and again.  It is the story of a young man who recognized that the privilege of his education could not be for his sake alone.  For Jones, this realization became crystal clear during the commencement services for the University of Iowa Class of 1907, a class of which he was the only African American.  He later wrote that during the speaker's address, the significance and challenge of "Noblesse Oblige” was raised.  The notion resonated in Jones heart.

Nobility Obliges.  The French origin of the term refers to the obligation of the wealthy and privileged nobility to help those of less fortune.  A Noble Obligation.  Or, in the words of one of my favorite sermons by Reverend William B. McClain, "Much Obliged."  Our children may not hear that saying these days, but at sixty I can assure you that I heard it echoed often by the elders of my youth.  When much has been given, you "ought to be grateful," surely enough to feel obligated to give in return.  "Much Obliged."  "Noblesse Oblige."

So, with his noble obligation, his $1.65, his diploma, his Bible, and a clean white shirt, he began his school with one student; a sixteen year old boy who could neither read nor write.  For his desk, a tree stump,  his bench, a fallen log - both granted on the land of a former slave in the back woods of Mississippi.  Ed Taylor, the freed black owner of that land, would later deed Jones the first 40 acres for his school.  Log by log, brick by brick, Jones, his students - young and old - and every black man, woman and child in those back woods would build every building with their own hands.  Storms would come - literally - and tear them down.  But this mighty people, unfettered by fear or misfortune, would persevere, until Piney Woods Country Life School would come fully into being. 

Along the way, others would engage the campaign.  African-Americans from surrounding counties and beyond, Anglo Iowans who learned of their native son's efforts, even Anglo sympathizers right there in the racist deep woods delta south.  Indeed, it is told that the very mob that corralled to lynch him in 1918, freed him after hearing out his story, and subsequently contributed to his cause. 

Nearly a half-century into his journey, an incredible blessing came.  On December 15, 1954 Laurence Jones was featured on Ralph Edward's popular television show, "This Is Your Life."  After sharing Jones story, Edwards appealed to the watching audience to send at least $1.00 to the Piney Woods School.  The outpouring was so overwhelming, that the post office had to set up a sub-station to handle the mail.  Within days, Piney Woods received enough money to seed its endowment, $700,000.00.

Today, The Piney Woods School has an endowment of over $7 million, and sits on 2,000 acres, which along with its academic, communal and residential buildings includes a 500-acre Instructional Farm, five lakes, managed timberland, and Mississippi's only rock garden Amphitheater.  It is one of only four accredited African American boarding schools in the United States, and was ranked amongst the top ten boarding schools by US News & World Report.  Its enrollment comes from all over the nation and from abroad, and 98% of its graduates go on to college.

While I've had the great privilege of preaching at Piney Woods, I did not have the good fortune of ever meeting Dr. Jones.  He passed in 1975, nearly ten years before I first set foot on the Piney Woods campus.  But from that first stepping - walking the paths of his footprints, sitting in the clearing where it all began, praying by the graves of Jones and his wife, Grace - I became filled with his spirit; a spirit of resilient determination, commitment and service.  Indeed, he became one of my "Spirit Guides."   In return, I have contributed what I could, when I could, to Dr. Jones dream.  In the mid 1980's I organized and sponsored winter term projects for Oberlin College students to volunteer as interns and tutors at Piney Woods; through the 1990's I passed on "The Pine Torch," recruiting friends and associates to join me in visiting and contributing to the school; I've attended the school's "Cotton Blossom Singers" tour concerts whenever I find myself nearby.

You see, at my own graduation from high school, the words "Noblesse Oblige" rang clear in our Cleveland East High Alma Mater song.  "Noblesse Oblige, we will live long, always, always true."  I got it.  Maybe not right away, but over the years, as with Dr. Jones, the challenge became crystal clear.  While I have never been a woman of great wealth in material ways, I have been abundantly blessed with the foundation of the rich traditions of strong family and faith, an excellent education, and many talents and skills.  And like Laurence Jones, who had more profitable opportunities, I submitted early in my life to my calling and commitment to render my gifts to the needs and causes of the least of us.

Given nearly a century of inflation, I probably had less than Laurence Jones' $1.65 when I set out to build  a bookstore and café in the heart of our deprived black community ten years ago.  It came into being only through the goodwill and confidence of family and friends.  We opened on January 1, 2002 with a mission of "doing good, while doing well."   The good, we've done.  No doubt.  The well... well, we could do better.  Nonetheless, our history reflects a decade of engaging community in critical and strategic thinking about the circumstances and challenges of our collective lives.

As we approach the first anniversary of The NIRJ as an autonomous entity, we have firmly established our mission to educate for the purpose of nurturing advocates for social, economic and legal justice.  Over the next decade, The Institute roots its focus in three campaigns:  The Municipal and Media Monitoring Movement;  Sustainable Community Controlled Development; and  The Eradication of Constitutional Clauses for Slavery and Voter Disenfranchisement.  In visiting our web site you can learn more about each of these initiatives and ways in which participate, and contribute to our cause on line and by mail.  The link follows, along with one to The Piney Woods School. 

Indeed, it is our hope that whatever your financial capability, you will feel comfortable in giving, and encouraging your family, friends and associates to give as well.  $1, $10, ten times $10.  Whatever your contribution, we are thankful.  Who knows, perhaps you will help "pour out a blessing" that is too great for our post office station to handle.  It could happen.

Until then, as always, we wish you all the peace, joy and blessings that come with God's abundant love.


Mittie Imani Jordan
Founder & Chair

Mittie, my check will be in the mail [in the words of another great Mississippian  — my favorite blues singer, Keb’ Mo’, who performed at the White House blues gala last month] “Soon As I Get Paid”.

We invite Real Deal readers to visit the cited websites and to consider contributing to either the Institute or the School, or both!


Carrie Buchanan said...

This is really inspiring! Thanks for sharing it. I'll be donating!

Richard said...

Thanks, Carrie, glad to hear it!