Seeking a Monument To School's Lessons

The Brown School's students and staff members in the late 1930s. Students were given a vitamin every morning.
The Brown School's students and staff members in the late 1930s. Students were given a vitamin every morning. (Manassas Museum System)
By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 11, 2007

A two-acre plot on Prince William Street, just west of Grant Avenue, does not look like much, but it once was the heart of Manassas's African American community.

The Brown School, Manassas's only elementary school for black students, once stood on the property, which is owned by the Tabernacle of Prayer for All People Church. Graduates of the school went on to Jenny Dean's Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth and, later, the regional public school.

The congregation, which bought the site from the city in 1988, planned to build its church there and erect some form of monument to the school. But nearly 20 years later, there is no church and no monument.

Unable to secure funding for a building, the church plans to sell the land to a developer and use that money to build a church elsewhere, the Rev. Will Palmer said. "Our goal is to build or renovate in the area," he said.

The congregation shares meeting space in a building on Plantation Lane.

The City Council must amend its original agreement with the church before the property can be sold to a residential developer. Several City Council members support the notion of a monument being erected on the property. Council member J. Steven Randolph (I) plans to include it in the future landowner's agreement with the church to preserve "the incredible story" of the school, he said. The council meets tomorrow to consider the issue.

"An African American elementary school stood here at a time when a public education was a premium in this country. That is the kind of thing we should never forget. It is part of our heritage," said Ulysses X. White.

White, a former council member and the co-founder of the Society for the Preservation of Black Heritage in Manassas, called the lack of monuments honoring black heritage in the city "a crying shame."

The Brown School's original structure from 1870 still stands on Liberty Street, where the school was first located, but that building has been a residence for decades and has been extensively altered.

The school most remember was the Prince William Street property. In 1926, Sears, Roebuck and Co. philanthropist Julius Rosenwald bought the land for the school, with additional funding from the surrounding black community's tax dollars. That same community built the school, from cutting the lumber for framing to setting the peaked metal roof.

A Quaker group from Philadelphia contributed supplies and most of the teachers' pay for many years.

There was a large room that could be separated by partitions to create four classrooms or used as one large gathering space for the community, said Celestine Braxton, who began her 33-year teaching career in the county at Brown in 1950. There was a library, a small office, two bathrooms, a cloakroom and a cafeteria downstairs that had to be accessed from outside.

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