Black ExperienceBlack History

New Statue in Manassas Highlights an Unsung Legacy


Jennie Dean is now immortalized.

Under an overcast sky in Manassas, Virginia, with raindrops lightly scattered against a rainbow-painted horizon, a crowd of about 100 — masked and socially distanced — watched the unveiling Saturday of a statue of the community activist for education.

The six-foot bronze statue, which sits on a three-foot granite base, is one the few outdoor statues of women of color in the United States — fewer than three percent, according to the Smithsonian Institute.

Through education, Dean changed the lives of countless African Americans in Manassas, Prince William County and the region. She established The Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth.

“It’s hard to describe after what we have been through, and what we heard as kids growing up,” said Carroll Braxton, 96, an alumnus of the school who attended the event.

Braxton, himself an influential figure in education, is the type of success story Jennie Dean dreamed of more than a century ago. He told the crowd stories of going to school in Manassas.

“I don’t care how bad the weather was, you had to walk. But these other kids had to ride 50 or 60 miles to get here on a school bus,” he remembered. “And now to have this statue right here. I am just thrilled to see it.”

Born into slavery in 1852 and without a formal education, Jane “Jennie” Serepta Dean, had a vision to help “my people.”

After the Civil War, Dean worked as a domestic in Washington, D.C. She spent nearly a decade personally lobbying for funds to build The Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth. It was chartered on Oct. 7, 1893, with donations from the Manassas area and philanthropists in Boston, New York, Baltimore and Washington D.C. Over the next four decades, despite numerous setbacks from catastrophic fires, debt, and political and social conditions, the school grew.

Carroll Braxton (left) speaks with singer Joe Coleman during an Oct. 24 event at Jennie Dean Elementary School in Manassas, Virginia, to unveil a statue dedicated to the school's namesake. (Courtesy of Nkoyo Iyamba)
Carroll Braxton (left) speaks with singer Joe Coleman during an Oct. 24 event at Jennie Dean Elementary School in Manassas, Virginia, to unveil a statue dedicated to the school’s namesake. (Courtesy of Nkoyo Iyamba)

Nearby the Dean statue, Braxton and singer Joe Coleman reminisce about their youth during Jim Crow.

“Music breaks barriers because it’s a language that everyone understands,” Coleman said.

He said Jennie Dean reminds him of the challenges his mother faced as a Baptist minister.

“They didn’t believe women could preach or should preach,” he said. “[The statue’s] a long time coming.”

Plans for the Dean statue began 30 years ago. Over the past year and a half, the Jennie Dean Campaign committee and the Manassas museum associates, led by Kisha Wilson-Sogunro, manager of the Manasass Department of Parks, Culture and Recreation, along with the help of more than 130 donors, raised more than $180,000 to complete the first phase of the project.

“This statue of Jennie Dean is for the community,” Wilson-Sogunro said. “It’s important for people in the community to be able to be inspired by people who look like them, who have achieved greatness.”

“She built three churches with bake sales, making dinners, and working as a domestic,” Sogunro said of Dean. “How do you achieve greatness? Look to Jennie Dean.”

When singer Tina V. Murray looks to Jennie Dean, she sees family.

“I’m finding out that I’m in her ancestry line,” said the Prince William County educator and minister.

Murray, along with the Manassas Chorale, sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” for the event.

“To sing a song like that at a time like this, with the world and the nation the way it is right now, was very emotional for me,” she said. “This is a massive moment for Manassas City, the nation — a time to come together.”

Change and unity seemed to be the message of the event. Speakers included Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, Sen. Mark Warner and Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-10th), faith leaders, and others.

“Manassas can be the example to help the rest of the nation,” said Mayor Hal Parris, who emceed the event. “This is a woman who made a difference in so many people’s lives, who are still living today, and who can talk about the difference she made in their lives as a result of her work.”

Jennie Dean’s signature motto “You do your part and I’ll do mine,” is a reflection of her symbolic gesture, leaning forward with her outstretched hand, “Not a hand out, but a hand up,” said Parrish.

It’s that “hand up” that called statue sculptor Christopher Hill to action.

From left: Chris Hill, sculptor of the newly erected Jennie Dean statue in Manassas, Virginia, sits with daughter Eleanor, wife Lauren and son Sullivan during an Oct. 24 event at Jennie Dean Elementary School to unveil the statue. (Courtesy of Nkoyo Iyamba)
From left: Chris Hill, sculptor of the newly erected Jennie Dean statue in Manassas, Virginia, sits with daughter Eleanor, wife Lauren and son Sullivan during an Oct. 24 event at Jennie Dean Elementary School to unveil the statue. (Courtesy of Nkoyo Iyamba)

“I was really inspired by her principles and core tenants with educating her people through the head, the heart, and the hands,” Hill said, adding that he created the statue so that as more people touch Jennie Dean’s hand, it will turn gold. “I want people to take her hand, and become part of her story.”

Hill said his research of the school showed him that Dean will continue to teach future generations.

“I noticed boys taking cooking classes and girls in woodworking,” he said. “I want to teach my kids that your skills should not be defined by who you are or your gender.”

Standing perched on its granite base, Jennie Dean’s statue will continue to invite people to “do your part” in society by giving back to the community, just as she did more than a century ago.

Fundraising continues for Phase Two of the Jennie Dean Memorial, which includes connected walking paths, interpretive signage, and an amphitheater for community use. To donate to the memorial, go to www.manassascity.org/jenniedean. A livestream of the Jennie Dean statue unveiling can be accessed at facebook.com/cityofmanassas.

Nkoyo Iyamba is a freelance journalist in the Washington, D.C. area.

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