Dean, Jennie (1852–1913)
Dean, Jennie (1852–1913)
African-American missionary and school founder. Name variations: Jane Serepta Dean. Born in Prince William County, Virginia, in 1852 (some sources cite 1854); died in 1913; daughter of Charles and Annie Dean.
Jennie Dean was born a slave in 1852 to parents who were owned by the Cushing and Newson families in Prince William County, Virginia. Details of her early life are few, but it is thought that Jennie's father taught her to read and write, and that she attended a country school for a few months. After the Civil War, her father settled near Sudley Springs. Dean moved to Washington, D.C., and took a job, the earnings from which she sent to her family to help support their farm. Her weekend trips home were spent establishing Sunday schools or missions, and Dean gave industrial training to the community's children.
Returning to Prince William County to live, Dean was concerned by the flight of black children from rural areas to the cities. The social development of black children was paramount to her, and she encouraged parents to purchase land and keep their children home. In 1896, she wrote "Jennie Dean's Rules for Good Behavior among Her People," a pamphlet that included instructions such as "Politeness Home and Abroad," "Don't Be Late in Going to Church; If You Are Late, Take a Seat Nearest the Door," and "Don't Address an Audience with Your Hands in Your Pockets."
Dean's leadership in the community prompted the establishment of the Mount Calvary Church, which initially met in the house her father had built. Her pleas to the community for funds to build a church, fashioned after her guiding philosophy of "You do your part and I'll do mine," were successful. Stephen Johnson Lewis in his biography of Dean entitled Undaunted Faith detailed her urgings: "You can each give something if only a day's work. … Whenever you sell something, lay aside a small sum, if only a few pennies, for the building fund. Those who have nothing to sell, come and give your labor when we raise the building. After my day's work, I will go out and try to collect money for the fund." In 1880, the church was built and consecrated.
Convinced that African-Americans could not advance without education, after 12 years of mission work Dean secured both local and national funding for the establishment of Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth. Members of local communities assisted in the construction of the school building, and in September 1894 Frederick Douglass addressed the audience during the school's dedication ceremony. Designed to teach vocational and life skills as well as academics, Manassas Industrial School opened with 6 students and would enroll a total of 75 during its first year. In addition to academics, boys were instructed in masonry, blacksmithing, carpentry, wheelwrighting, machinery, and agriculture, while girls were instructed in housekeeping, cooking, sewing, and laundry work. To help cover the cost of the modest tuition fee, part-time jobs and scholarships were available to students. A trades building and a new library were added by 1915, thanks to funding from Andrew Carnegie and friends in the North, and in 1933 Manassas entered the public-school system.
Although Dean's direct involvement with the school decreased over the years, her interest in the school's advancement remained unwavering until her death, following a long illness, in 1913. She was buried in the cemetery of the church she'd helped to build. At the site of her family's original farmhouse stands a stone marker with a bronze plaque.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.