City of Manassas, VA . . . To Manassas residents, Jennie Dean is the familiar name of an elementary school and surrounding park. Historic interpreter Marion Dobbins aims to bring the remarkable woman behind the name to life during free performances at the Manassas Museum this Saturday, July 27 at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.
In any era, Jennie Dean would be an unlikely hero. Like many African-Americans in the area, Jennie Dean was born into slavery. Her parents, both house slaves, instilled the importance of education, Christian morals and thriftiness in their four children. All the children in the family were taught to read, which was in violation of state law that forbade slaves from being educated.
After the Civil War and when the family was freed, Jennie’s father was able to buy a nearby farm, but he died before he could pay for it. At age 14 she saved the family farm, and later paid for a sister’s education by going to work as a domestic in Washington, D.C. She became a well known speaker at area churches, teaching young African Americans to embrace a good work ethic and strong Christian morals.
When she traveled home, she noticed the absence of African-American churches and helped to establish Baptist missions. These mission churches also played a role in educating African-American children, especially when many schools established by the Freedmen’s Bureau closed after the Civil War.
She also saw the need for vocational education to help make African-Americans productive citizens and dreamed of educating the “hearts and hands” of the community. She bought the 100 acre property where the elementary school is now located for $2,650 with money she had saved from work as a domestic, and the contributions of benefactors like Andrew Carnegie in Boston, New York, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
She spoke before many diverse groups while raising money for the school, including an 1892 Fourth of July picnic in Manassas and the Women’s Suffrage Convention in 1893. When the first building, Howland Hall, was dedicated in 1894, the great African-American abolitionist Fredrick Douglass spoke.
The residential school’s first enrollment was six, but by the turn of the century about 150 students learned vocational skills such as carpentry, blacksmithing, mattress-making, shoemaking, sewing and music there. Although students learned practical skills, the school’s catalogue stressed the importance of moral education, saying that “the aim is not to make young men and women craftsmen; the aim is to make craftsmen better men and women.”
In 1937 the school was dissolved when Prince William, Fairfax and Fauquier Counties established a segregated regional high school for African-American students. It later became a county high school and elementary school, and became the present Manassas City elementary school in 1991.
By the time its doors closed, the school educated about 6,500 young African-Americans from Washington, Virginia and 10 other states, many of whom went on to teach in the area. The school is remembered at a four-acre memorial park featuring an exhibit kiosk with audio program and interpretive panels at 9601 Wellington Road in Manassas.
Dobbins, a seventh-generation Virginian, portrayed Jennie Dean at the historic site during the 2011 Manassas Sesquicentennial commemoration. Her performance is part of the Museum on the Lawn series this summer, and complements the exhibit currently on display at Manassas City Hall.
Strong Men & Women in Virginia History, a new free exhibit from the Library of Virginia in conjunction with the Manassas Museum, is now on display in the City Hall lobby through August 31. The exhibit honors eight distinguished African-American Virginians, past and present, for their important contributions to the state, the nation, or their professions. Jennie Dean, the founder of the Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth, is featured in the exhibit, which is traveling throughout the state with the help of funding from Dominion Virginia Power. Manassas City Hall, 9027 Center Street, is open from 8 a.m. till 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.