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Discover Mississippi: Sacred Soil...

Discover Mississippi: Sacred Soil – Piney Woods School

By: Susan Marquez - May 7, 2024

  • Piney Woods, a place where the past provides a foundation for the future, is featured in a documentary film now streaming on Hulu and Disney+.

Driving down Highway 49 south of Star, the rolling farmland of the Piney Woods Country Life School appears on the left. The entrance to the 2,000-acre campus is subtle, tucked among pine trees set back from the highway. 

I first learned about the school in the 1990s when I was the marketing director for Northpark Mall. One of my duties was scheduling talent to entertain shoppers. Not long after I started work there, I booked the Piney Woods Singers, following a visit from Dr. Charles Beady, the president of Piney Woods at the time. The singers stood in the center court of the mall and sang like angels. They were all very well-behaved and respectful. I invited them back each year for the ten years I was there. 

In 1999, I had an opportunity to visit Dr. Beady’s home on the campus of Piney Woods. I was invited to a small reception for Oprah Winfrey, who was a benefactor of the school before she started her school for girls in Africa. 

I was delighted to learn recently that a documentary film about the school was streaming on Hulu and Disney+. Sacred Soil: The Piney Woods School Story was directed and produced by filmmaker JJ Anderson. The film focuses on today’s students at the historic Black boarding school founded by Dr. Lawrence Jones, a Black educator, in 1909. The film touches lightly on the history of the school, or the reason for its existence. 

Jones, who was a recent graduate of the University of Iowa, was shocked by the high illiteracy rate (80%) in rural Rankin County, Mississippi. With just a few clean shirts, a Bible, a couple of textbooks and $1.65 to his name, he built the school on faith, determination and profound purpose. He believed he was fulfilling God’s calling.

Students paid whatever they could with whatever they had, including produce and building supplies. The first classrooms were outdoors on logs, and the first students were the children of slaves. Jones taught them arithmetic, and how to read and write, along with life skills to help give them a hand-up. 

Today, Piney Woods is a co-educational boarding college prep school with approximately 250 students. One third of the students are Mississippians, one third of the students are from other states, and one third are from other countries. 

Anderson’s focus in the film is on the current president, Dr. Will Crossley, and some of the students at the school. Crossley grew up in Chicago and attended Piney Woods for five years. He came back to the school as an educator. His passion for the school and its students shines through as he addresses one of the classes at the beginning of the school year. He talks about being fearless, “not for us, but for something bigger than us. We all need to be honest. Trustworthy. Respectful. We will not lie, cheat, or steal. Live life exponentially, practice love, have integrity, keep the faith, strive for excellence. Be empowered.” 

In the next scene of the film, he is meeting with faculty members discussing revenue streams for the school. Money is tight, and Crossley explains that their fundraising efforts depend on dollars from individuals and grants. 

The Piney Woods campus includes a 500-acre instructional farm, five lakes, and managed timberland. The farm helps to sustain them from both a health point and financially. Food grown on the farm by students is prepared and served to the students in the cafeteria. The goal is to grow more than they need to have a farmer’s market for the community. 

The farm is also a metaphor for life. A seed cannot grow if it is not given the right environment and nurturing. The same is so for the students. Piney Woods works to provide a positive and nurturing environment where students and staff can invest and pour into each other.

“Young people are looking for their place in the world and they want to be seen,” says Crossley. 

“We strive to be regenerative in the sense of putting more back into the world than we are taking from the world,” Crossley adds. The farm is a bonding experience as much as it is a teaching experience.”

The school’s farm manager says he feels a strong obligation to the students.

“When knowledge isn’t passed on, you are giving power to others.”

The mission of The Piney Woods School is to is to provide excellence in education within a Christian community through creation of an exceptional academic model which supports the tenet that all students can learn, develop a strong work ethic, and lead extraordinary lives through academic achievement and responsible citizenship, but might not have the opportunity to do so for financial or other reasons.

The school attracts students from around the world thanks to their reputation for academic excellence. Piney Woods is a place where the past provides a foundation for the future.

See the official Hulu trailer for Sacred Soil: The Piney Woods School here

About the Author(s)
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Susan Marquez

Susan Marquez serves as Magnolia Tribune's Culture Editor. Since 2001, Susan Marquez has been writing about people, places, spaces, events, music, businesses, food, and travel. The things that make life interesting. A prolific writer, Susan has written over 3,000 pieces for a wide variety of publications.