Jefferson Davis County was carved out of surrounding counties in 1906. In 1907 the Prentiss Institute opened its doors. Jonas Edward Johnson and his wife Bertha LaBranche Johnson borrowed money to purchase 40 acres of land that included a log cabin that was once used as an early homestead, perhaps as an inn and tavern along an early road that led from the river town of Natchez east into Alabama. There were still remnants of slave quarters in the rear. In its heyday the Institute was considered by many both black and white to be one of the finest of Mississippi’s black schools, emulating the philosophy of Booker T. Washington’s model of black self determination. The school attracted some of the best and brightest African American educators and lecturers. In 1926, 19 years after the school was founded, a Rosenwald classroom was built on the campus.
Initially, the Johnsons had the challenge of convincing parents in rural areas to send their children to this school. In those days the population of Prentiss was around 200. They began with 40 students who paid for their education with the only commodities they hadâ€”eggs, chickens, produce and the like. When the school began it covered only the elementary grades, but over the years it grew. By the time Dr. Johnson passed away in 1953, Prentiss Instituteâ€”by then the Prentiss Normal and Industrial Instituteâ€”included a high school and junior college with an enrollment of more than 700 students and a faculty of 44. The campus also grew, from those original 40 acres to 500 acres of pasture, farmland and forest, and from one building to 24.
In 1955 the Prentiss Institute formed a union with Heifer International, two independent organizations committed to both education and social justice. This relationship would span the next 3 decades. In December 1955, just months after the murder of Emmett Till, an article by State Times staff writer George Harmon reported that “Prentiss Institute, a 48 year old private junior college and vocational school, received 15 pure-bred heifers last week for distribution to families who want to diversify their farm income but are not financially able to do so.” Later on there were chicken projects as well.
Heifer International (also Heifer Project) had formed a relationship with the African-American school in segregated Mississippi and had sent them livestock in June 1955. This was one of Heifer’s first full-fledged projects in the U.S. As unusual as this may have been for the times, it was what the recipients at the Prentiss Institute did next that was truly radical. When the second shipment of heifers arrived in Prentiss, “the Institute asked white farm leaders in Jeff Davis County to help them donate some of the animals to white families.”
The Supreme Court decisions in the Brown I and Brown II cases striking down the separate by equal doctrine ironically may have contributed to the decline and eventual closure of Prentiss Institute. As numbers at the school dwindled, so too did participation in Heifer-related programs. Prentiss Institute struggled for several years before closing their doors in 1989 and ceasing to function as an education institution. To date, alumi are working to restore the remaining buildings on campus. A few are still in use, including one operating as a Head Start center.
Matthews, Jaman, Rememberance of Days Past: The Prentiss Institute at 100.
McMillen, Neil R., Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow, 308-09 (1989).
Harrison, Alferdteen, Black Exodus: The Great Migration from the American South, 91 (1991).