“What you’re really getting is what it really means to live with your folks, learn next to your folks, feel next to your folks, persevere next to your folks, and what that does for your body and your spirit.”  -J. J. Anderson

When J. J. Anderson took on the role of Director for Disney-ESPN’s Anscape documentary Sacred Soil: The Piney Woods School Story she had no idea that she was in for a life changing experience that would push her to new heights and challenge her both personally and professionally. Shot over the course of 1 year, Anderson and her crew weathered ninety degree summers and ten degree winters across two thousand acres of land in rural Mississippi as they captured the stories of 100 students collectively from all over the world who attend the institution. 

With a new generation of youth emerging who demand authenticity, Anderson shares with Sheen how the experience challenged her to embrace authenticity. “I had to be open, I think emotionally, to the kids because they would accept nothing else. That was really – it changed my life because it showed me about showing up as yourself authentically even if it was painful to do that. And there was no way that I couldn’t do that because the kids were giving me that every single day.” 

Everyday was a memory with the students of Piney Woods. The kids saw through everything so Anderson had to make sure that everyone in her crew was prepared and aware. “These kids are highly advanced – they see everything, they feel everything. They’re going to have conversations with you. If they say hello and you don’t speak back they’re gonna let you know “Hey, you didn’t speak and I spoke to you. Are you okay, are you doing okay today?,” she explains. 

It wasn’t long before Anderson realized that shooting at Piney Woods, which seemed like it would be an easy, breezy thing proved to be the hardest thing she has ever done in her life. With a carefully drawn out plan, only one location for shooting, and a set cast of 100 students several other factors would make their otherwise smooth road a little bumpy. 

There are several factors, it was because we’re at an institution that only has four full-time teachers for over 100 kids, 2 part-time teachers – and so for the staff to balance us and to balance what they actually need to do and focus on it was difficult. Everyday I went in with a schedule and everyday that schedule changed so there was no way for me to tell the crew ‘This is what we’re shooting today.’ It was really kind of like a free fall and we kind of got to get in where we fit in, explains Anderson. 

But through it all, Anderson remained committed to telling the spiritual, nostalgic, legacy-driven story of one of only four remaining Black boarding schools left in America. A school where developing students – head, hearts, and hands is at the core and it champions both community and self-sustainability. 

For Black history month it was important for Black institutions like Piney Woods, who have a wonderful agricultural program designed after Tuskegee’s agricultural program, to have a platform to share the great work as it was designed with Black young minds in mind – their success, lifting them up when they fail, and their perseverance. 

What you’re really getting is what it really means to live with your folks, learn next to your folks, feel next to your folks, persevere next to your folks, and what that does for your body and your spirit. Um, and it’s incomparable – to have Black children from all over the world to come to a space that is designed with them in mind where they are not ‘othered’ and they don’t have to worry about that. They all have an equal foundation and they’re all routine for each other. It’s incomparable, you can’t get that anywhere else. And so, I want people to understand what’s at stake when we lose these schools,” Anderson shares. 

Scared Soil: The Piney Woods School Story is now streaming on Hulu. For More information about The Piney Woods Boarding School, visit 


Photo Credits: HULU