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50 years for Sydnor Jennings Elementary

SoVaNow.com / June 13, 2013
Acreage donated by descendants of the highly successful son of a formerly enslaved woman today boasts a lively elementary school with nearly 270 students, said David Duffer, principal of the 50-year-old Sydnor Jennings Elementary.

At each month’s meeting, the Halifax County School Board invites a different school to make a presentation about itself; Monday night was the Volens school’s turn.

Sydnor Johnston Jennings was born in 1864 and worked as a sharecropper before coming into his own as a successful businessman who owned three farms. Duffer said he believes Jennings first donated land for a small school, the Green Valley School across the road. After his death in 1940, his family donated land for the larger school would open in the fall of 1962, prior to integration, for African-American children in the northern part of the county, combining smaller schools, including Green Valley.

(Green Valley, which burned in 2011, was one of the nearly 5,000 Rosenwald Schools, partially built with money from the president of Sears, Roebuck and Co. used to plant schools for African-Americans across the South in the early 20th century.)

The new school was initially headed by Lazarus Bates, and it bore Jennings’ name.

Duffer said many of Jennings’ descendants became educators. Among them is La Vinia Delois Jennings, an English professor at the University of Tennessee, who dedicated her award-winning book “Toni Morrison and the Idea of Africa” to her Volens ancestor.

The name “Sydnor Jennings,” then, Duffer noted, does not refer to separate people but to one man.

The school and its heritage aren’t of interest only to locals but also have piqued the curiosity of others, including Philip J. Merrill, a specialist in African-American history and material culture and an appraiser on the television program “Antiques Roadshow.”

Sydnor Jennings’ student body today is about 50 percent black.

It has an active PTO, a walking trail established by the PTO and a community partner in nearby Childrey Baptist Church. Its students and staff have raised money for tornado victims in Oklahoma, collected pet food for the Humane Society and helped defray the health expenses of a student. Some staff accompanied Duffer to the meeting.

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