As statues recognizing the Confederacy across Virginia are targeted for removal, the likeness of a Black woman is going up in Manassas.
On Tuesday, the base of what will be the Jennie Dean Memorial statue was installed in Dean Park, adjacent to Jennie Dean Elementary School, as a memorial first envisioned over 20 years ago begins to take shape.
Designed by Bristow artist and longtime Manassas Museum volunteer Chris Hill, the six-foot tall bronze sculpture will show Dean leaning forward and extending a hand. Born as an enslaved person in Prince William County in 1848, Dean spent almost 10 years after the Civil War raising money for what would become the Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth. Chartered on Oct. 7, 1893, the school’s first building was dedicated in September of 1894 in a ceremony led by Frederick Douglass.
Having personally solicited contributions from donors as far as Boston, Dean had purchased 100 acres for the school and by 1900, it had 150 students learning math, science, literature and music, as well as trades that included painting, agriculture, cobbling, carpentry and blacksmithing. Dean died in 1913.
The statue and the plaza around it will be the central feature of a renovated Dean Park. Kisha Wilson-Sogunro, the city’s parks, culture and recreation manager said that with the base now installed, the next step in the project is to “clean up” the landscaping and make the park ADA-accessible. Given the ongoing pandemic, Wilson-Sogunro said it’s still unclear when the statue will go up, but that she’s hoping everything will be in place by the fall. The community has raised $149,000 of the $175,000 needed, with a matching $175,000 budgeted by the city council.
The first master plan for the statue and park renovation was approved by the city council in 1992, but the project wasn’t finalized and fundraising didn’t begin until last year.
E.J. Scott, a local chemist who serves as a vice president of the Prince William chapter of the NAACP, has been heavily involved in the planning and fundraising for the project. She said seeing the first piece of the statue go in was thrilling, particularly amidst the nationwide movement against police brutality and racial injustice sparked by the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“I’m definitely ecstatic about that dream that we had finally coming to fruition,” Scott said. “… I think part of the problem with so many things that have happened is that people don’t know what incredible things that African Americans have done in this state, in this country and in this region. And I think letting them know the incredible fortitude that so many African Americans had and contributed to the well-being of this country is going to be a real legacy. So we will start here with Jennie Dean’s legacy and continue to make known all of the extraordinary works she did.”
Wilson-Sogunro said the plan is for bronze reliefs depicting various scenes from the Manassas Industrial School to be installed on the sides of the statue’s base. Those and other components of the park like benches and trees will be purchased with individual donations once everything else is in place.
There’s only one known photograph of Jennie Dean, and in it she’s seated, revealing just her head and shoulders. But earlier this year, Hill — who previously designed a bust of longtime D.C. Mayor Marion Barry and a seven-foot tall sculpture of Harriet Tubman for his alma mater Salisbury University, said in a press release that he wanted to show her standing and in motion.
“The head, the heart, and the hand is a natural extension of someone reaching out their left hand, which also leads to her reaching out her hand to the community. If you’re at eye level with her hand, Dean will smile down at you,” Hill said. “I wanted to have that interaction: when you look into her eyes and take her hand at the same time.”
To Wilson-Sogunro, it’s a representation of Dean’s selfless nature.
“This will mean that my boys will see the statue and see that there were people who were invested in their education … it’s some strong shoulders that they’re standing on of selfless people like Jennie Dean,” Wilson-Sogunro said. “She was a hidden figure .. she cared about making sure all people, all kids, should have an education. To me she was a silent giant.”