written by B.J. LeJeune
In honor of Black History Month, the place where I work, Mississippi State University Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on blindness and Low Vision (MSU-RRTC) would like to honor two incredible educators from Mississippi, Laurence Jones (November 21, 1884 – July 1975) and Martha Louise Morrow Foxx (October 9, 1902–1975) who were influential in creating educational and vocational opportunities for the children of former slaves and for young children who were both blind and black in Mississippi through the work of the Piney Woods School. I am writing this as a CaptionMax blog because although we will have it on our website, it is such an engaging and interesting story I would like to share it with others.
At the CaptionMax Consumer Advisory Board Meetings, we talk about accessibility to various media, but for the early years of the Piney Woods School the issue was access to the basics of education – reading, writing and mathematics. The more I researched it, the more interesting I found the Piney Woods story to be. I am so inspired by people with passion and purpose like these two amazing people.
The Piney Woods School was founded in 1909 by Dr. Laurence C. Jones as a place to provide schooling for poor black children in the rural piney woods area south of Jackson, MS (Jones, 1922). His task of founding the school was not easy, and according to the history of the school on their website he was almost lynched for his efforts. The school started with one 16 year old student under a cedar tree on a fallen log and the next day there were 2 more students. As word got around, the school continued to grow. The school was designed to provide both vocational and academic opportunities for children. According to photos and documents in the Mississippi State University Library Archives many students came in mule drawn wagons and were dropped off with tuition partially paid in crops and homemade goods. Their families left them at the school with the hope of a better life for them if they could only get an education. Many were the children and grandchildren of slaves who themselves had never learned to read. All students at the school were required to work helping grow food for the school, building and repairing the grounds, or touring in music ensembles. In an early photograph the early motto of the schools reads “Work is the Mother of Contentment.”
Here are Dr. Jones’ own words describing how the school paper, The Pine Torch was named. His words are indicative of the passion and purpose behind his development of the school.
“Over fifty years ago when I came from Iowa to Mississippi, there were no flashlights in the rural districts among the colored people. We walked several miles to church at night, through the deep piney woods, by the light of a pine torch — the [person] in the front holding it high above his head and the rest of us trooping along behind.
“Pine torch is made up of slivers of fat pine — that is pine that still has rosin and turpentine in it. Some called it lightered — I guess a contraction for light wood — not in weight but the possibility of making a light. I discovered that two slivers would not burn but created a coating of carbon. But three or more pieces would make a torch — for the air circulating between the slivers would mean no carbon. So I got to thinking that I and my faculty could not do anything by ourselves to create light in these piney woods. However, with the help of the northern and southern friends I could make, we would together create a light — throw the torch to others. With that in mind I thought it a good idea…to call our school paper The Pine Torch.” (from the Piney Woods School website)
In May 1913, at the end of its fifth year, the school received a charter from the governor of Mississippi. By that time, a former slave, Ed Taylor, had donated a sheep shed and 40 acres to the school. Many teachers, black and white, joined the staff and worked for little or no salary as the school endeavored to train teachers to be recognized by the State Department of Education. In or around 1920 Dr. Jones became aware that there was no school to educate Negro children who were blind. He was given the task of identifying all such children in the state. There is a story that reported that his awareness was aroused because a family with a blind child arrived at the school, looking for educational opportunities. Never one to turn away from a challenge, and believing every child deserved an opportunity, Dr. Jones added the education of blind children to the school’s purpose in the early 1920s. Dr. Jones began looking for a teacher and it took almost 9 years before he urged Martha Louise Morrow Foxx, a young woman who herself was partially blind, to come teach the blind children at Piney Woods. She became the teacher and eventually principal of the Piney Woods Colored School for the Blind, which became later known as the Mississippi Blind School for Negroes. She did acclimate to her new surroundings and fit into the routine. Her first class had 6 boys, so, she scrubbed 6 boys every night and tucked them in. On Saturdays she brought out a big wash tub for their hot baths, and she cleaned their clothes, taught them vocational and academic skills, and nursed them when they were sick.
Miss Foxx was the primary teacher of the blind at the school from 1929 until 1942. She was initially educated at the North Carolina School for the Blind and the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia, PA, but went on to study at several colleges during the summers of her employment at Piney Woods, and eventually received her bachelor’s degree from the Hampden Institute. She developed a curriculum where children were taught Braille, academics and vocational tasks like chair caning, sewing, industrial skills and broom making. Like all the other children at the school, the children who were blind or had low vision were also expected to work. This was a concept that was well before its time. In those years children who were blind were expected to be put in custodial situations and cared for by friends and family, or placed in institutions. But at Piney Woods, everyone worked. At the urging of Dr. Jones, the state provided some supplemental funds to fund the Colored Blind school which included a $50 month salary for Miss Foxx, the highest paid teacher at the school.
Two of the more well known programs at Pine Woods were in business and music. Some of the students who were blind worked for the school by forming two popular gospel music groups known as the Cotton Blossom Singers. Martha Louise Morrow Foxx, helped organize the blind singers at the urging of the school founder Laurence C. Jones. The more well known of the two groups originated from the school in 1936 as a quartet with members Archie Brownlee, Joseph Ford, Lawrence Abrams, and Lloyd Woodard. They performed both jubilee quartet and secular material in order to raise money for the school. They traveled around the country and had an all female backup band to provide accompaniment for their music. The various music groups from the school helped to bring in financial support during the difficult depression years, when state funding for the school was withdrawn. On March 9, 1937, Brownlee and the others recorded sacred tunes (as the Blind Boys) for the Library of Congress. After graduation in the early forties, they were based in Chicago and began performing professionally and added Melvin Henderson, who joined the group making them the well known Five Blind Boys of Mississippi.
Martha Louise Morrow Foxx was a pioneering educator of the blind in Mississippi. Her innovative techniques and leadership are credited with guiding the Mississippi Blind School for Negroes towards its move to Jackson and eventually to integration. The first big step was embodied by the creation of a campus in Jackson in 1950, after almost 30 years of effort (Harrison, 1982). In 1945, Helen Keller, after visiting the school and learning of Miss Foxx and her work, helped convince the Mississippi legislature of the need for funding the establishment of the school for children of both races and the Piney Woods School received state funding and moved to become a sister school of the Jackson based Mississippi Blind School. The move to Jackson was difficult to accomplish during the segregation years and took the work of many white and black Mississippians. Dr. Laurence and Miss Foxx worked tirelessly to make it happen. Miss Foxx trained teachers and developed techniques found to be effective in educating students with vision impairments. Initially the Piney Woods students and white students were housed in different campuses where Miss Foxx was principal of the Mississippi School for the Negro Blind in Jackson. Miss Foxx retired in 1969, but her efforts were rewarded when the two campuses combined in 1974. The combined school is now further combined into one campus with the Mississippi School for the Deaf.
In searching for information about these two amazing people I am struck by the sacrifices and commitment they demonstrated. Both could easily have pursued outstanding academic careers in areas where they would be appreciated, and where “the living was easy.” But with a sense of mission and calling, both Dr. Laurence and Miss Foxx left the comfort of their respective home communities in Iowa and Philadelphia to come to that wild and dark Piney Woods and start a work which lit the torch that was passed to others to guarantee the education of young blind children of color. Dr. Laurence was the principal of Piney Woods School for 60 years. Miss Foxx was not only an outstanding example and a role model, but an advocate for the rights of her students. She is mentioned in the APH Museum in their chronicles of Colored Schools for the Blind. I would like recognize both the achievements and the legacies of these outstanding educators, Laurence C. Jones and Martha Louise Morrow Foxx.
Harper Purcell, L. (1956) Miracle in Mississippi: Laurence C. Jones of Piney Woods.
Harrison, Alferdteen (1983). Piney Woods School: An Oral History. University of Mississippi Press.
Jones, Laurence (1922). Piney Woods and Its Story.
Famous Iowans,. (2008). Laurence Clifton Jones. Retrieved from the DesMoines Register.
The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_Blind_Boys_of_Mississippi
Laurence C. Jones, Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laurence_C._Jones
The Piney Woods Country Life School, Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piney_Woods_Country_Life_School
Sam Myers Bio & Discography, Retrieved from http://www.sweetsammyers.com/samsbio.htm