Prentiss Normal and Industrial Institute
The History of Prentiss Institute, a 2012 video by alumni president Rosie Hooker, is online. Charles H. Wilson’s Education for Negroes in Mississippi since 1910 contains a profile of the school. The 2016 National Register application for the campus has a history of Prentiss Institute and its buildings.
The "1907 House" made from pine planks, hand-sawn by slaves. Photo by Jack A. Gold for the 1979 National Register application. https://www.apps.mdah.ms.gov/nom/prop/15402.pdf
Prentiss Normal and Industrial Institute was founded in 1907 by the husband and wife team of Jonas E. and Bertha L. Johnson. Its purpose was to “provide educational opportunities for Negro boys and girls to develop spiritually, mentally, and physically.” Classes began that year for 40 students, many of whose parents paid tuition with corn, eggs, potatoes, peas, and molasses.
Though P.N.I.I. was licensed as a private high school in 1909, it remained primarily an elementary school. Wilson notes that for the first ten years, it offered only two years of work above elementary grade. The Brookhaven newspaper counted 26 grammar school graduates and only five high school graduates in the 1922 commencement.
Part of the private funding for the school came from its touring music groups. The Jubilee Singers and other ensembles did concerts across the South carrying the name of the school and raising funds.
Prentiss Institute operated on the Tuskegee model of education, emphasizing “the beauty and dignity of labor.” Students attended regular academic classes during the morning and received industrial training in the afternoon. That training included vocational agriculture, shoemaking, carpentry, and blacksmithing as well as cooking, sewing, and millinery. Students demonstrated their skills as part of commencement week. In 1922 P.N.I.I. became the County Teacher Training School, receiving funding for teaching home economics and vocational agriculture.
Prentiss Institute continued to grow. In 1931 it became licensed as a private junior college. By 1934 enrollment had reached 340, taught by a faculty of 17. In addition to teacher training and liberal arts, the school added programs in commercial subjects. By 1957 the Times-Picayune reported an enrollment of 700 with a faculty of 44.
In 1955 Prentiss Institute received fifteen pure-bred heifers from Heifer International, providing fresh milk and milk products for the campus. Later the school helped distribute the offspring of these heifers among poverty-stricken area families—both white and African-American.
After the county built a public school for Blacks in 1959, Prentiss Institute was able to phase out its elementary and high school departments while focusing on its junior college. By the 1980’s Prentiss began to experience lower enrollments and a consequent loss of funding. It was forced to close in 1989.
Bricks and Mortar
With a borrowed $400, the Johnsons were able to purchase an old plantation house which served as their residence as well as classrooms. In 1926 P.N.I.I. added the Rosenwald Building, a single-story stone structure. This was one of the more than 5,000 schools for Blacks provided by funds from Julius Rosenwald of Sears, Roebuck and Company.
By 1954 the number of building reached 24 with 500 acres of agricultural land. But the main building spurt began in the late 1960’s. The Ruby E, Stutts Lyells Library came in 1968, the William V. “Bill” Crosby Cafeteria in 1970, the Joseph Bancroft Science Building in 1976, and the Gymnasium in 1976-77.
Sitting empty, the building were deteriorating until the alumni association began a renovation project in 2012. This has been completed for the “1907 House” and the Rosenwald Building. The “1907 House” was placed on the National Register in 1979 and the rest of the campus in 2016.
Graduating class from Prentiss Normal and Industrial Institute. Image courtesy of Mississippi Department of Archives and History
The renovated Rosenwald Building. It has an H shape, one of the standard Rosenwald patterns. Today it is a museum and community ballroom. Photograph by David B. Schneider for the National Register application. https://misspreservation.com/2016/12/28/national-register-2016-historic-districts/
Colors: Blue and Gray
Team name: Panthers
College Football Data Warehouse shows only eight football games for P.N.I.I. between 1934 and 1965. Earlier games were against in-state rivals Piney Woods School and Utica Institute; later opponents were Voorhees College and South Carolina Trade School.
With the new gymnasium P.N.I.I. fielded both men’s and women’s basketball teams. The Panthers played as members of the Southern Intercollegiate Conference and of District 23 in the National Junior College Athletic Association. Opponents included community and junior colleges in Mississippi and Louisiana.