She was born a slave in northern Virginia’s Prince William County, but by the late 1880’s she finagled enough money from people like tycoon Andrew Carnegie to build an entire educational campus: classrooms, dormitories, dining halls, libraries and shops to teach both academic classes and trades like carpentry, animal husbandry, cooking and sewing to male and female black students from across the region, who had few other options for continuing their education.
Opened in 1894 with a small group of students and lasting in various forms until the original buildings were torn down in the 1960’s, Jennie Dean’s “Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth” is testament to one woman’s determination and leadership. Her legacy lives on through the hundreds of students she touched, and their families.
In a short visit to the nearby Manassas Museum, I learned that the Jennie Dean Memorial is open-air since the buildings are gone, and despite pouring rain and the umbrella-juggling that made it hard to take good photos, I’m so glad that I jumped into my car to go see it.
You can get a sense of the original buildings and campus layout through a bronze model sculpture, but all that remains are the foundation outlines of the buildings and a reproduction of the arched brick entryway to the Carnegie Building, named for its benefactor who gave Dean $15,000 toward her cause. There’s an information kiosk plus an audio description, as well.
There was only one small building on the property when Jennie Dean started her school, and the very next one she was able to get funded, the Howland Hall dormitory and dining hall, went up in flames in 1895 only four months after it was built. Undeterred, Dean rebuilt it by the end of the year, although it’s not clear whether she had to go back to the building’s original donor – philanthropist and educator Emily Howland in New York – to get more money.
Can you imagine what it must have felt like to so quickly lose the first sign of growth and progress for a special project? Fortunately for her students, Dean never gave up.
What vision she had. What persistence in the face of extraordinary odds, from “ordinary” obstacles such as lack of money to the everyday insults of segregation and discrimination. What a gift she gave to so many generations of classes.
Frederick Douglass himself delivered the school’s dedication ceremony address in September, 1894. Here’s what he said, noting the location near major Civil War battles fought over whether people in certain states had the right to own slaves:
“No spot on the soil of Virginia could be more fitly chosen for planting this school….[it is a] place where the children of a once enslaved people may realize the blessings of liberty and education.”
Before they were torn down (which is a real shame – I wonder if anyone fought against it?) the Manassas Industrial School buildings housed segregated classes during decades of Jim Crow, but today the Jennie Dean Elementary School sits next to the Memorial. I watched students and teachers from several different ethnic groups go in and out of the little brick building; they scarcely gave a glance over to the outlined foundations of one woman’s dream. I’m sure they teach her story in that school today, but I’ll bet that hardly any of the students can fathom the mountains that Dean climbed.
(More about Jennie Dean on The Journey Through Hallowed Ground, a comprehensive website for the U.S. four-state National Heritage Area between Gettysburg, PA and Charlottesville, VA.)
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