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.