During Black History Month: Learn about Two Pioneering African-American Educators in the Blindness Hall of Fame

The APH Hall of Fame logo

The Hall of Fame for Leaders and Legends of the Blindness Field honors, at present, 56 individuals who were pioneers in the blindness field and shaped the field’s history, philosophy, knowledge, and skills, while providing outstanding service to people who were blind and visually impaired.

The Hall of Fame, which belongs to the entire field of blindness, is located within, and is curated by, the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) in Louisville, Kentucky. You can learn more about APH’s long and storied history at the APH website.

In 2013, two accomplished educators were inducted into the Hall of Fame. Dr. Laurence C. Jones and Martha Louise Morrow Foxx were honored for their pioneering work at Mississippi’s Piney Woods Country Life School during the first half of the 20th century. At Piney Woods School, Dr. Jones and Mrs. Foxx opened, and held open, a door that had been seen as forever closed to black Americans, including those who were blind.

Dr. Laurence C. Jones (1884 – 1975)

Dr. Laurence Jones

The Piney Woods School was founded in 1909 by Dr. Jones as a place to provide vocational and academic schooling for poor black children and grandchildren of slaves in the rural Piney Woods area—just south of Jackson, Mississippi. The school started with one 16-year-old student standing at a tree stump; the next day there were two more students.

As word spread, the school continued to grow. Many students came in mule-drawn wagons, with tuition partially paid in crops and homemade goods. Their families left them at the school with the hope of a better life made possible through education. All students at the school were required to work. They helped to grow food for the school, built and repaired the grounds, or toured in music ensembles. At that time, the motto of the school was “Work is the Mother of Contentment.”

1920: Piney Woods Adds Education of Blind Children

During the 1920s, Dr. Jones became aware that there was no school to educate black children who were blind. He observed a young blind girl begging on the streets of Vicksburg and a young blind boy, whose sharecropper parents were killed in a fire, was left at the school for him to care for. Never one to turn away a child in need or a challenge, and believing every child deserved an opportunity, Dr. Jones added the education of blind children to the school’s purpose.

Dr. Jones authored several books and toured the country tirelessly, inviting national and international dignitaries to visit the campus. He attracted both white and black teachers from around the country to Piney Woods to learn the methods used at the school for the blind. He advocated education that touched “the mind, the heart, and the hands.” This credo was evidenced in education for the mind; spiritual growth and service for the heart; and putting the hands to good old-fashioned work.

1950: A New Campus and Integration

In 1945, after visiting the school and learning of the work of Dr. Jones and Mrs. Foxx, Helen Keller helped convince the Mississippi legislature to fund the establishment of a new campus in Jackson. After receiving state funding, the Piney Woods School moved to Jackson in 1951 and became the Mississippi School for Blind Negroes, a sister school of the Mississippi School for the Blind. The combined work of Dr. Jones and Mrs. Foxx was further recognized when the two schools merged in 1974.

Helen Keller at Piney Woods
Helen Keller visits the Piney Woods School in 1945.
Dr. Jones and Mrs. Foxx are in the first row, far right.

The Legacy of Dr. Jones

“Dr. Jones should be noted and recognized for his work in the field of blindness… Dr. Jones was the first spark that initiated a fireball of interest and support to educate all children, including those of former slaves and those who were blind. This leader dared to educate the excluded. This leader dared to include a department to educate the blind which was far different from the expectations during that time. His leadership and professional practice are unsurpassed.” ~Dr. Rosie L.T. Pridgen, Superintendent, Mississippi School for the Blind

Martha Louise Morrow Foxx (1902 – 1975)

Martha Foxx

Mrs. Foxx was the primary teacher of the blind at the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi from 1929 until 1942. She then became principal until 1951, when the school moved to a new campus in Jackson, becoming the Mississippi School for Blind Negroes, where she served as director until her retirement in 1969.

Martha Louise Foxx began her journey in the Piney Woods as an 18-year-old graduate of the Overbrook School for the Blind. She went on to study at several colleges during summers, earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

An Innovative Educator

Mrs. Foxx became widely known for her innovative and dynamic teaching philosophy, which entailed instruction outside the walls of the school. She insisted that students be allowed to enjoy outings into the woods around Piney Woods School to hone their senses of touch, sound, and smell.

Using what were considered to be progressive techniques, she taught students to read braille and large print and insisted that they learn to be self-reliant and develop careers to ensure they could succeed in “making their own” way after graduation.

Teachers, both black and white, from around the country, came to Piney Woods to learn and embrace her methods—all before PL 94-142, IDEA, and the Civil Rights movement. Her curriculum was adopted by the “white” school for the blind in the late 1940s.

The Legacy of Martha Louise Foxx

“Challenging minds, expanding possibilities, securing opportunities, and changing what it meant to be blind for African-Americans who happened to be blind – this is what Mrs. Foxx did with her life. She accepted the call, challenged her limits, and impacted lives by making a difference in the dignity and quality of life of hundreds of blind individuals who are now living all across America. Those same individuals are carrying on her legacy not only today, but for many years to come.” ~Barbara White Hadnott, former student

Additional Information

The enduring legacies of Dr. Jones and Mrs. Foxx are detailed in the APH Hall of Fame biographies and the 2013 APH Hall of Fame Inductees Announcement, adapted here with permission.

For more information about the life and work of Dr. Jones and Mrs. Foxx, you can read The Piney Woods School by B.J. LeJeune on the CaptionMax blog. You can also read the expanded biographies of Dr. Jones and Mrs. Foxx on Wikipedia.