When the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors issued a historic vote March 24 to rename the Dulles District in honor of Jennie Dean, a freed slave and preacher who founded the landmark Prosperity Baptist Church in Chantilly, it was a cause for celebration among the county’s African American population.
But less than two weeks later, the board unexpectedly reversed its decision in a 5 to 4 vote and reinstated the Dulles name. The descendants of Jennie Dean and the members of the church community that rallied to support the change say the sudden reversal left them stunned and disappointed.
Arlean Hill, a local historian and descendent of Jennie Dean, said she thinks that the board’s handling of the process was “unprofessional.” No one in the family knew that the board was going to reconsider the decision, she said, and supporters of the name change were not present.
When Hill learned of the reversal after the fact, she said her thoughts went immediately to 94-year-old Nellie Thornton — the oldest living descendent of Jennie Dean — who sat in the board room audience when the supervisors initially voted to name the district for Dean.
“She was sitting there that night and was so happy,” Hill said. “To then say, well, no, they took it back because they don’t think [Dean] was important in Loudoun, that they think the Dulles name that is going to attract business to the area is more important ... it is egregious, a lack of respect.”
The motion to reconsider the district name change was made by Chairman Scott K. York (I-At Large) at the April 4 meeting. York proposed the motion because he said that he conducted more research on Jennie Dean and found that much of her work was done in neighboring Prince William County.
Dean was a “wonderful woman,” York said, “but everything she did was in Prince William County. We are Loudoun County. Ms. Dean was born in Prince William County. This is Loudoun County.”
Supervisor Kelly Burk (D-Leesburg), who made the motion to name the district for Dean at the March 24 meeting, argued that Dean served Loudoun’s African American population as well — students from Loudoun also attended the school that Dean founded in Manassas.
“She helped with the education of slaves and their children ... and she did that here in Loudoun as well as in Prince William,” Burk said.
But Supervisor Stevens Miller (D-Dulles) said he’d heard from many constituents who were unhappy with the change and told him that they would prefer to retain the name Dulles.
“The airport is in that district, and there’s been a consistent observation to the effect that we’re giving away a brand name that we need,” Miller said.
Hill said she bristled when she read Miller’s statement in a news story.
“To use terms like ‘brand name’ in comparison to somebody’s lifetime work and achievement ... my family was just appalled,” she said.
At the meeting, York expressed his own disappointment with the way the renaming of the district had been handled, acknowledging that the board had acted without enough thought.
“This kind of goes to show that when we do stuff like this, we really need to take the time and understand what it is we’re approving,” York said.
Pastor Carlos Lawson, who has preached at Prosperity Baptist for 10 years, said he hopes that there might be another way to honor Dean.
“We’ve always had a desire for Loudoun County to recognize her,” he said. If a precinct or a school were to be named after Dean, he added, “That would help complete Jennie Dean’s legacy. It would be a positive step.”
Hill identified a different positive step that she hopes the supervisors will take:
“They need to apologize to a woman who was born and raised in Loudoun, whose ancestors endured the institution of slavery, who endured the Jim Crowe segregation in Loudoun and went on to become a productive citizen,” Hill said, speaking of Thornton. “At least let her leave this world believing that Loudoun has changed enough to recognize its mistakes.”