A Rich, Disappearing Legacy Remembering Black boarding schools: A tradition obscured by desegregation’s impact. By Ronald Roach
There’s no doubt that the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board school desegregation case next year will generate much-needed discussion about the ongoing struggle over providing quality education for American children, especially for those in the Black, Latino and American Indian communities. While a good deal of the celebration will applaud the historic efforts of courageous scholars and lawyers, such as Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall and Dr. Kenneth Clark, to desegregate the public schools, there likely won’t be much, if any, attention paid to another distinct tradition that sought the best education possible for Black children during the segregation era. The tradition belongs to historically Black boarding schools, of which there were more than 100 in the United States prior to the 1970s.Currently, only four such schools are in operation. ” It was an excellent educational option, and it is the kind of option I wish we had available today,” says North Carolina Central University provost Dr. Lucy Reuben, who attended a Black boarding school known as the Mather School in Beaufort, S.C., during her high school years. Alumni of these schools, which were primarily based in the South, decry the loss of these institutions, which came about in large part from enrollment declines and financial hardship after desegregation opened up all-White public schools to Black students. These independent boarding schools had made up a significant part of the educational infrastructure for Blacks between the Civil War and the civil rights movement. When southern states and localities failed to provide schools for Black children, local Blacks, religious organizations and philanthropists took it upon themselves to build independent elementary and secondary schools.” The schools that became boarding schools were often the only places in a particular community where Blacks could be educated,” says Dr. Charles Beady Jr., the president of the Piney Woods School in Mississippi.Among the Black boarding schools, the Mather schools in Beaufort and Camden, S.C., Palmer Memorial Institute and Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina, Snow Hill Institute in Alabama, Gilbert Academy in New Orleans, Piney Woods in Mississippi and Boggs Academy in Georgia are some of the better known institutions. To those who attended the Black boarding schools, the tradition imbued them with a profound sense of community, religious devotion for those at the church-affiliated schools, and a commitment to academic excellence, qualities they believe are rarely replicated in the lives of contemporary Black students.” I can say that Mather provided a truly rigorous and character-building experience,” Reuben says.Today, a number of the boarding school alumni groups have reunions on an annual basis and a few work on historic preservation projects relating to their alma maters. The four existing Black boarding schools have recently begun efforts to reach out to the alumni of the ones that have closed.
PIONEERING EFFORTS Laurence C. Jones, Charlotte Hawkins Brown and Rachel Crane Mather may not be household names, but as founders of Black boarding schools they are held in high esteem in Black education history for establishing schools under difficult circumstances. While dozens of schools were founded during the late 1800s and early 1900s, a number of them rose to prominence based on the extraordinary perseverance and leadership of individual founders. Others flourished under the largess of religious organizations and philanthropic interests. The founder of the Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, N.C., Charlotte Hawkins Brown is said to have led her school to considerable prominence as one of the top academies for Black students in the United States. With few resources, Brown established Palmer in 1902. Prior to launching Palmer, Brown had held an American Missionary Association teaching job at the Bethany Congregational Church in Sedalia. After the school closed within a year of Brown’s arrival, the young teacher stayed in the community and opened Palmer, which she would head for 50 years. The school was named in honor of Alice Freeman Palmer, Brown’s mentor and benefactor. Palmer was the second woman president of Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass. Like many of its counterparts, Palmer was founded as an agricultural and manual training facility. Over time, it evolved into an accredited college preparatory academy that drew Black students from around the nation and from overseas. During Brown’s tenure as president, more than 1,000 students graduated from the school. Palmer would eventually close in 1971. Dr. Roselyn Payne Epps, professor emeritus of pediatrics and child health at the Howard University medical school, remembers Charlotte Hawkins Brown as a capable and determined leader.” She was a very dynamic and strong woman,” says Epps, who graduated from Palmer in 1947.Epps went to Palmer as a 12-year-old ninth-grader along with her older brother. As the child of parents who were an administrator and faculty member at what is now Savannah State University, Epps recalls having the time of her life as a student. “It was a wonderful experience. It was culturally enriching and a great education,” she says. Delphine Patton Sneed, an arts instructor at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, graduated from Palmer in 1968 in a class of 48 students and recalls her time at the North Carolina school as a transformative one. “It was absolutely the best thing my parents did for me. It was really a life-altering experience,” Sneed says. She says she was a shy, awkward teenage girl who had grown up in the South Bronx before her mother sent her off to Palmer as a 10th-grader, paying annual tuition, room and board fees of $1,200.” I went to Palmer very shy, gangly and nerdy. By the time I graduated, I was Miss Thing. I had developed into quite a socially aware young lady,” Sneed says. Sneed says the interaction with her classmates and teachers who were from all over the nation and overseas stimulated her to excel academically and develop self-confidence. As a board member of the Palmer Memorial Institute in its later years, Epps recalls that the school had great difficulty with raising funds to sustain the school’s economic model. “It was a small school that had at most 200 students,” she says, adding that fund-raising efforts could not keep pace with rising costs associated with maintaining dormitories, dining facilities and academic buildings. Lacking the national network that its founder Brown had relied on when she ran the school and hit with a fire that destroyed the main academic building, school leaders had to close the school in 1971, according to Epps. By the 1980s, Palmer alumni and former teachers had organized a foundation to establish a museum on the site of the old school, according to Tracey Burns-Vann, the director of the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum. The state of North Carolina designated the Palmer campus as an official state historic site, the first recognizing Black history in North Carolina. ” It’s a wonderful resource for North Carolina,” Burns-Vann says.In Beaufort, S.C., alumni of the Mather school recently met in Hilton Head Island for a reunion of the formerly all-girls academy that became coeducational in the 1960s.Reuben of North Carolina Central says she attended the school just two years before returning home to Sumter, S.C., where she integrated a formerly all-White public high school. She credits the Mather experience for helping her develop the self-confidence she would need during the experience of integrating an all-White school. Reuben recalls that the racially mixed Mather teaching staff had high expectations of students and they encouraged student ambitions to attend college at the nation’s most competitive institutions. The school’s founder, Rachel Crane Mather, established the school, which would bear her name, in 1867 under the auspices of the American Missionary Association. Over time, both a highly regarded accredited high school and junior college would flourish at the Beaufort campus. The junior college, established in the 1954, was coed from the start while the all-girls boarding high school went coed in the early 1960s. Both the high school and junior college closed in 1968, and Mather junior college students and archives were accepted by Benedict College in Columbia, S.C.” We were exposed to cultural activities and were expected to be sophisticated and cultured women,” says Vernell Young, a Mather alumna from Virginia Beach, Va. Currently, Benedict College also coordinates Mather’s alumni reunions, and the Beaufort Lowcountry Technical College, which was established on the Mather campus by the state of South Carolina, invites the alumni to an annual ringing of a bell that belonged to the boarding school. At the recent reunion in Hilton Head Island, Mather alumnus talked about working with the technical college to have a room in one of the campus buildings designated in honor of the boarding school, according to officials. While Black boarding schools generally evolved from agricultural and industrial training schools into college preparatory academies, some schools retained some of its technical and vocational character. Cherryl Matthews, an elementary school principal in Baton Rouge, La., recalls that her high school, Boggs Academy in Keysville, Ga., a boarding school established by the Presbyterian church, offered three tracks for its students. Most students like Matthews opted for the college preparatory curriculum, but a number of students followed a business curriculum, which prepared them for jobs after high school such as in bookkeeping and office management. A third group, comprised of a few students who were from the local community, learned technical trades at Boggs. Matthews, who was from Columbia, S.C., says her parents, who were schoolteachers, felt strongly that a private Black boarding school would provide her a far better education and enriching cultural experience than the segregated public schools in her hometown.
THE POWER OF PINEY WOODSFounded in 1909 by Laurence Jones, Piney Woods is by far the best known Black boarding school largely because of its high-profile fund-raising efforts and the back-to-basics philosophy employed at the school. Only Laurinburg Institute in Laurinburg, N.C., founded in 1904, has been around longer than Piney Woods. The other two existing schools are Pine Forge Academy in Pennsylvania, which was founded in 1946, and Redemption Christian Academy in New York, founded in 1979. The four schools form the Association of Historically African American Boarding Schools.Dr. Dolphus Weary, a Piney Woods board member and alumnus, says he believes that Piney Woods has managed to survive largely because of the original vision of its founder, Laurence Jones. ” He was a guy who knew how to take the long view,” Weary says. Jones had long established support and relationships that were extensive in Mississippi and outside the state, according to Weary.The Piney Woods campus is located just 21 miles southwest of Jackson, Miss., and sits on 2,000 acres of rolling hills, forest, open fields and lakes. The school enrolls 300 students from ninth through 12th grade. The self-sufficient campus has a post office, a farm, athletic fields, chapel and amphitheater. Students come from more than 20 states, Mexico, the Caribbean and African nations. Its student body profile includes kids who are in need of an opportunity to leave their home communities for a school environment where they can reach their full potential, according to school officials. Administrators say students often come from single-parent households and from working-class and low-income communities. ” We want the student who knows that going to Piney Woods is a privileged opportunity and a blessing,” says Marvin Jones, an administrator at Piney Woods. The school has a $6 million annual operating budget, and full tuition, including room and board is $13,000 annually. Because many students come from low-income and working-class backgrounds and are subsidized by scholarship support, students pay an average of $3,500 a year to attend, according to Jones. Students adhere to strict discipline at Piney Woods. They are required to perform chores, which include working on the school farm. Class attendance is mandatory, and students have to study two hours nightly. At 5:30 a.m. each weekday, students and faculty must attend prayer service, and they must attend three church services on Sundays, according to school officials. Aware that there are thousands of alumni of Black boarding schools scattered across the country, school president Beady hit on an idea in 2002 to rally them in support of Piney Woods, the largest of the four schools.Working from a partial list of Black boarding schools, Beady organized the 1st National Black Boarding Schools Weekend Celebration, which was held in Los Angeles this past April. An estimated 400 people attended the event, which netted the school more than $1 million in pledges. Prior to the April event, Beady reached out to the heads of the other three boarding schools and won their support for the idea of a national Black boarding school weekend. He says the association will be working together on future national reunions and a radio-thon to raise funds for all four schools. Not unlike Jones, Beady has cast a wide net in maintaining support for Piney Woods. Celebrities, such as Oprah Winfrey and Morgan Freeman, have donated money and have lent their names to campaigns for Piney Woods. The school also benefits from having radio mogul Cathy Hughes on its board. Hughes is a granddaughter of Jones, the founder. Beady, who has been the school president since 1985, says the school is pushing hard to rebuild its endowment, which took a beating during the stock market meltdown over the past few years. He says the endowment is nearly $20 million. At the height of the stock market boom in the late 1990s, the endowment was at $40 million, according to Beady. Tapping the legacy of the Black boarding school tradition and reaching out to the alumni represents a strategy that could not only mean more dollars for the current Black boarding schools, but might stimulate greater national interest in the historic tradition of Black boarding schools, according to Beady. Though no one can point to a comprehensive list of all the Black boarding schools that existed, Piney Woods officials hope they will be able to put one together.” The alumni of the boarding schools are precisely the people who would be most sensitive to our mission,” Beady says. “Instead of them meeting every year to talk about the good old days, we want to give these alumni something that is forward-looking to support.”
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