Who Was Jennie Dean?
Despite being born into slavery in 1852 and without the benefit of a formal education, Jennie Dean’s vision changed the lives of countless African Americans in Manassas, Prince William County, and the region.
When the Civil War ended, leaving the county desolate and deprived, Jennie Dean sought work as a domestic in Washington, D.C., hoping to build a new life for herself, but never forgetting the African-American community she left behind. She travelled home by train on weekends to train “her people” in life skills, to establish churches, and finally, to establish the Manassas Industrial School.
After almost a decade of fundraising, the Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth was chartered on October 7, 1893. With funds donated from the Manassas area and from philanthropists in Boston, New York, Baltimore, and Washington D.C., that she personally lobbied, Dean purchased 100 acres and began construction on a school for African-American children of Northern Virginia. The school was designed as a private residential institution providing both academic and vocational training within a Christian setting.
The first school building, Howland Hall, was completed in time for the dedication ceremonies led by Frederick Douglass on September 3, 1894. Over the next four decades, despite numerous setbacks from catastrophic fires, the school grew. Influential donors such as Miss Emily Howland, a suffragette from New York; Mrs. C. B. Hackley of Tarrytown, New York; Mr. Everett Edward Hale of Washington D.C.; and Mr. Andrew Carnegie all contributed significant funds towards buildings, land, and operational needs of the school.
By 1900, over 150 students attended the school’s three-term academic year, October through May. Academic instruction included mathematics, natural sciences, geography, physiology, music, literature, and English. Vocational instruction included carpentry, blacksmithing, wheelwrighting, mattress making, painting, mechanical drawing, agriculture, cobbling, shoemaking, and animal husbandry for boys; and sewing, cooking, domestic arts, household arts, sewing, and laundry methods for girls.
The school offset its operating expenses and allowed the students to earn their tuition and board through its industries. Excess products from these industries were sold to support the schools needs. Despite these diligent efforts, expenses usually exceeded income and the school often suffered periods of debt, operating for 44 years under difficult economic, political, and social conditions. Despite these challenges, the school survived as a private institution after Dean’s death in 1913 and until the 1930s.
In 1937, the public school systems of Fairfax, Fauquier, and Prince William counties formed a joint board of control and purchased the land and all the buildings from the Manassas Industrial School for a regional high school for African-American students. This three-county partnership remained until the 1950s, when Fairfax and Fauquier built their own segregated schools. In 1954, Prince William County consolidated its African-American students from Brown Elementary School of Manassas with the Regional High School and the school became known as the Regional High and Elementary School.
In 1957, the regional board of control was dissolved and the land was released to Prince William County for the construction of a new high and elementary school. The cornerstone for this $800,000 building was laid on October 1958 and opened in September 1959 and was named to honor Miss Jennie Dean, the charismatic former slave and Baptist missionary who dedicated her life to advancing educational opportunities for African Americans. When the County’s public schools were integrated in 1966, Jennie Dean became a high school. It remained so until it was incorporated into the City of Manassas public school system in 1977 as Jennie Dean Middle School and finally in 1991, as Jennie Dean Elementary School.
The four-acre Manassas Industrial School/Jennie Dean Memorial, 9601 Wellington Road, that commemorates Dean and her school, was dedicated in 1995.