Black Arlington’s Jennie Dean Park

Sign at the entrance to Jennie Dean Park
AUDIO – Black Arlington’s Jennie Dean Park

Ask any Black person who grew up in Arlington during the 1950’s to 1970’s about Jennie Dean Park in the Green Valley neighborhood and I guarantee they will have a story to tell. It will be a story of friends. Of fun. And most of all, a story of community.

I interviewed Mrs. A. Saundra Green of the Halls Hill – High View Park neighborhood about Jennie Dean because she is without question a living treasure of Arlington Black History knowledge. I knew Saundra could provide details about the “Negro Recreation Division,” in Arlington County Parks and Recreation Department based on her experiences growing up in Arlington and as a staff director in Arlington Parks and Recreation Department for decades. Jennie Dean Park was created for Black Arlington as one of only seven parks in the segregated system.

As “The Early History of Arlington Parks and Recreation Department explains, “Until 1962, the Arlington parks system was segregated. The Negro Recreation Section was designated by the parks department for African-American members of the community who were denied access to County parks. Created in 1948, the Negro Recreation Section provided sports and arts-related programming and held public events, which were often held at the Langston Recreation Center or Hoffman-Boston School. Mr, Ernest E. Johnson served as its supervisor from 1948-1962.”

Jennie Dean was the largest of seven playgrounds in the Negro Recreation Section. All of the special events in recreation that were County-wide for Black Arlington residents were held at Jennie Dean because of its 22-acre size. Saundra listed off the segregated neighborhoods that were “Halls Hill, Green Valley, Hatsville, and Johnson’s Hill, where the smaller neighborhood playgrounds came together for festivals, track meets, little league softball, and other big events at Jennie Dean.”

Saundra went on describe Jenny Dean, “as a place where African-American children from around the County met each another.” She went on to explain that before children went to (segregated) Hoffman-Boston Junior-Senior High School, they had met children from other County neighborhoods during recreation events at Jennie Dean.

When I was a teenager in Arlington in the late 1960s and ’70s, although Arlington Recreation was integrated, services were still provided by neighborhood, especially in terms of summer camps and drop-in recreation. Of course, redlining in housing was still prevalent, though illegal in the County, so most Black people lived the historically segregated neighborhoods. Friday nights in summer were all about watching or participating League Softball games at Jennie Dean. Basketball tournaments and the ice cream truck song competing with the music playing and spectator’s cheering and telling stories of bragging rights for the winning team.

Jennie Dean holds additional significance to Black Arlingtonians because Ms. Jane Serepta Dean, or “Miss Jennie Dean” was a formerly enslaved woman who founded the  Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth. This secondary school was one of few secondary schools serving African American youth. In 1948 Arlington County Public Schools was paying the tuition for 33 students to attend the school in Manassas rather than allow them to attend all-white Washington-Lee High School. In 1944 when Arlington County purchased this park, land where Black people from Green Valley played baseball since the 1930’s, it was named Jennie Dean Park in her honor.

Today, Jennie Dean Park is the subject of neighborhood concern due to the recent decision by the County Board to establish a temporary parking lot for television station WETA down the block from the station. The Green Valley Civic Association leadership expressed their displeasure about the County’s stating in 2018 that, “acquisition of the property is essential for the expansion of Jennie Dean Park.” Then the Board made the decision to use the land for private parking for an undefined period of time. There was no notice given to the neighborhood. No email sent to the Civic Association. No notices posted on social media. Only a notice in the Washington Times.

It’s no wonder the Civic Association feels Arlington County government has “failed” the Green Valley neighborhood by their inability to communicate and work in partnership this project at a place that holds so much historic significance to our community. Let’s hope the County Board and Manager make a sincere effort to improve communication and partnership with Green Valley as the County’s oldest and most revered historic African-American neighborhood.

24 Years is a Long Time to Desegregate

24 Years is a Long Time to Desegregate

Click above to listen to the blog post.

The murder of George Floyd, the experience of Christian Cooper, and the outright racism of the president, is having an impact in multiple ways in our country. One thing the protests in the streets of America, from big cities to small towns, is changing is the way a lot of people think about American History. Folks are learning about Black Wall Streets, in Tulsa and other states. They are learning about the reason statutes to honor Confederate losers were installed all over the South following Reconstruction. They are learning about a lot of racist and evil actions that were taken all over this country to keep Black people down since the enslaved Americans learned that they had been freed.

I am getting a lot of interest from people on social media about my book, which provides a history of the Halls Hill neighborhood in Arlington, Virginia. The levels of Jim Crow racism, discrimination, and institutional racism Black Arlington residents endured and overcame that I describe in the book is eye-opening to some who don’t understand the level of racism Black people endure(d) in Arlington. The actions those Black Arlingtonians took and the courage they showed to impact change helped make this County what it is today. But we still have far to go, as the current environment shows us. In schools and communities, I am encouraged with the curiosity people are showing to learn and do more.

I must admit that I think to myself, FINALLY.

There are so many aspects of Black History in Arlington that are not well known.

I wanna start here: It’s time to admit that the reason students in Arlington County Public Schools are not taught about the real Black History that happened in this County is because of institutional racism.

The School Board has never acknowledged the ugly past of the real story of the steps that led to desegregation. There is an annual program to commemorate the desegregation of Virginia Public Schools which happened in Arlington at Stratford Junior High School on February 2, 1959. But there is no discussion about the full truth that efforts for desegregation began in 1947 and did not end until 1971. Even now some schools in North Arlington are becoming even more segregated with the latest school boundary changes. I learned just days ago that critical programs for children with IEPs are offered at some Arlington elementary schools but not at Drew Elementary School, a school that serves a large contingent of Black and Brown children and has been consistently disenfranchised by the Arlington Public School leadership and the School Board for decades. Drew was one of the last segregated schools in Arlington County in 1971. Yes, you read that correctly. 1971.

Sorry, I digress. Let me stay on point. A more comprehensive description of Arlington school desegregation.

It began with Constance Carter, a resident of the Green Valley neighborhood. Her family sued the Arlington County School Superintendent and the Arlington School Board in 1947. She wanted to enter Washington-Lee High School because Hoffman-Boston, the segregated school for Blacks did not offer the advanced courses which she wanted to enroll. At that time, Hoffman-Boston was not an accredited school. Graduates could not attend college with their diploma. Two other Black students filed suit against the County in September 1949. All these cases were denied, but by October 1949, Arlington County was paying for 33 Black students to attend a vocational school in Manassas, rather than allow them to take the courses at Washington-Lee High School.

Court cases, rulings, and appeals continued across Virginia and other Southern states until some cases were combined and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling was made on May 17, 1954. But that did not deter Virginia or Arlington County from their efforts to deny equal education to their black constituents. The NAACP filed more lawsuits in Virginia than any other state to force integration following the Supreme Court ruling. The Arlington lawsuit was filed on May 17, 1956, exactly two years after the Brown ruling.

U.S. Senator Harry Byrd and his cronies developed the legislative strategy for “Massive Resistance,” to keep Virginia Public Schools segregated. This was an organized effort to defy the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court. By the summer of 1958 the federal lawsuit for Arlington, Thompson v. County of Arlington School Board had over 30 student plaintiffs. The School Board lost ruling after ruling. They filed appeal after appeal to deny, then delay as long as possible, the day of desegregation. Finally on February 2, 1959, four Black students were allowed to enroll in Stratford. Desegregation trickled after that date, with students from North Arlington offered more opportunities to enroll in formerly all-white schools over time. The School Board closed John M. Langston School in 1966, the neighborhood elementary school in the Halls Hill community, rather than have White students go to school in a Black community. (Arlington’s answer is ALWAYS to bus Black students to achieve desegregation.) More importantly, the County continued to segregate Black students at Drew and Hoffman-Boston Elementary Schools.

As an excerpt from an Arlington County publication states, “By 1969, Arlington’s junior and senior high schools were all desegregated. Hoffman-Boston Junior-Senior High School had closed in 1964, and Black students were placed in formerly all-white schools. At the elementary school level, however, there were still two schools that were virtually entirely Black.” After yet another series of lawsuits, Arlington finally desegregated by again busing ONLY the Black students to formerly all-white schools in 1971. It took 24 years to fully desegregate this County’s schools. Such a shame. Over 17 years after the U.S Supreme Court ruling.

It’s time to acknowledge the full history. Warts and ugly scars along with the celebration of the small steps we are continuing to take toward equal education for all in Arlington County Public Schools.

To my old readers, yes, I am stepping out of the “Halls Hill History” box a little bit. But its past time to tell the history and share the stories with a new intention and mission. So every Sunday I am going to share a little bit of the history of this County from my perspective. Some things will be from my Halls Hill book. But look out for other historical information I think needs to be shared from any part of Black Arlington.

We can start a conversation here on the blog. Just comment below.

Oh, if you’re a troll, you’ll be blocked. Only thoughtful, insightful, intelligent conversation allowed.

Have you visited the Halls Hill Style store on Shopify?
Get yourself some gear -> https://halls-hill-style.myshopify.com