Prentiss Normal and Industrial Institute, one of the oldest educational institutions for African-American in the state of Mississippi. Established in 1907 in Jefferson Davis County by Jonas Edward “J.E.” Johnson (1873-1953) a graduate of Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College, and his wife Bertha LaBranche Johnson (1882-1971) a graduate of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. Professor J.E. Johnson and his wife borrowed funds to purchase 40-arce site where the school originated, and started the school in a log cabin which served a dual purpose by providing living quarters for the Johnson family and classrooms for the school.
The mission of Prentiss Institute was to provide educational opportunities which would enable its students to develop spiritually, mentally and physically so that they would become productive and responsible citizens who would render effective services to the community.
When Prentiss Institute originally opened in 1907, the school only offered elementary classes but soon the curriculum expanded once Prentiss Institute was licensed by the state of Mississippi as a private high school in 1909 and as a private junior college in 1931. The high school and junior college experienced rapid growth with a peak enrollment of more than 700 students and 44 faculty members. The campus grew from the original 40-acres to 500-acres to include farmland, a pasture and forest and the physical plant grew from one building to 24 buildings to accommodate increased student enrollment.
In 1912, the U.S. Department of Agriculture placed the first local county agent at Prentiss Institute to perform demonstrations and render service to the county. This enhanced the agriculture program at the institution, and aided in expanding the vocational curriculum.
Prentiss Institute is known for the Heifer Project, Inc. which begun in 1955, though it had been an international project for years, it had not functioned in the United States prior to its establishment on the campus. The project provided a means to improve the school’s farm, by constructing and operating a diary. Through this program, the student body received an abundance of beef and pasteurized milk at a low-cost.
In 1968, a new Building Program was launched attributed to the income generated through tuition and alumni donations which helped Prentiss Institute Junior College to grown its physical plant and academic programs. The Ruby E. Sims Lyells Library was erected in 1968, Ransom Olds Hall was built-in 1969, and the William “Bill” Crosby Cafeteria was completed in 1972.
The Institute was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation that provided for a Science Laboratory, a lecture hall and a Media Center in 1974. It was also in the 1970’s that Prentiss Institute entered into cooperative education programs to enhance the skills of vocational students, and built the Physical Education Complex. During this time the college received a grant from the state of Mississippi to conduct a child development program.
As funding and student enrollment dropped. Prentiss Institute was forced to close its doors in 1989. For many years the campus sat deserted and the buildings abandoned until the Prentiss Institute Board of Trustees, under the leadership of Ms. Rosie Hooker, began a restoration project that included many of the buildings on campus. Today the early school location is a museum recognized as the “1907 Building” and the Little Theatre, Science Building and Library are again being utilized by the community.
The Rosenwald School Building was reopened with a grand celebration in February 2013. Today the Rosenwald Building at Prentiss Institute is a popular event venue for a multitude of special events. It is recognized as a historic landmark by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.