Sunday, November 9, 2014

Jennifer Business College: First African-American Secretarial School in the Nation's Capital

W. Emile Jennifer, Pres.
W. Emile Jennifer established the first African-American business college in Washington in 1920 in response to news that the U.S. Civil Service Commission would finally be accepting applications from Blacks for clerical jobs. 

World War I (1914-1918) was over and the government continued to expand, so much so, that the Washington School for Secretaries was established. The school, which didn't accept Blacks, opened its doors on Monday, March 8, 1920. It was founded by Dr. Richard T. Ely, 65, a prominent economist, author and former professor of President Woodrow Wilson's at Johns Hopkins University.  Ely was also the founder of the prestigious American Economic Association.

Site, Jennifer Business College, 1243 New Jersey Ave., NW
In contrast, W. Emile Jennifer was an African-American man, age 20, who worked as a public stenographer in his parents' home while earning a bachelors degree in law at Howard University. He had the vision to launch the first business college in D.C. for African-American students, and did so nine days after the Washington School for Secretaries opened on Wednesday, March 17, 1920.

Jennifer's mother, Syme, provided capital for the venture and served as Secretary-Treasurer. The young entrepreneur, Emile, developed the curriculum, provided instruction and handled day-to-day operations including marketing.

Syme L. Jennifer, Secy.-Treas.
Ads with the headline "Wanted - Colored Students to Train" for jobs as stenographers and clerical workers were placed in daily newspapers such as The Evening Star in Washington as well as African-American newspapers including the Washington Bee and the Washington Eagle, and the Pittsburgh Courier in Pennsylvania.

The Crisis, edited by W.E.B. DuBois, and published by the NAACP, carried ads that touted the headline, "Capitalize Your Summer Months at the Nation's Capital... Special Summer Courses Now Forming."

In addition to training in shorthand (Gregg and Pittman), typing, mimeographing, multigraphing and card punch, the school promised special services such as "individual coaching" and "assistance in procuring positions after graduation." 

Ad, Chicago Defender, 1922
The Jennifer Business School operated from 1920 until 1960. Sadly, there is little information about the school in the public domain. It was only happenstance that I learned about it at all, scouring obituaries. Mr. Jennifer's 1975 obituary only mentions the existence of the school. 

I spent the last several months researching, emailing and making phone calls before I was finally able to locate a relative about three weeks ago who graciously was willing to talk to me. I would appreciate hearing from anyone who would like to add to the body of research I'm collecting about Mr. Jennifer and the Jennifer Business School. 

AfroAmerican, November 1938
In January 2013 I wrote a blog post where I incorrectly stated that Cortez W. Peters started the first African-American business college in Washington. I am updating that information with the table below of non-degree conferring schools in D.C. offering special training to Blacks. The data was compiled by the late Dr. Lillian Dabney Dearing for her thesis, "The history of schools for Negroes in the District of Columbia, 1807-1947" (Catholic University, 1949). It indicates that the Jennifer School was founded in 1920 and the Peters School in 1934:

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In addition to operating the Jennifer Business School, Mr. Jennifer was a pianist who at one time was affiliated with Duke Ellington, and performed around town with the Jennifer Society Orchestra which he founded. 

He also served alongside his mother in the Civil Defense as an air raid warden. Mr. Jennifer's father, Prof. William Jennifer, was an educator, attorney and statistician with the federal government.

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  1. Dear Ms. Cox - On behalf of the Jennifer Family, thank you so much for your research efforts. I am sorry that I missed your call last June. We are relying on our cell phones and virtually forgetting about the land line. My wife just checked messages last night and found 96!

    I sure would like to talk to your sources. I know you contacted my Aunt Jean Jennifer Brooks. But some of the information that you reported I never knew. For an example, I had not heard that my great grandfather was a lawyer and a professor.

    I vaguely remember some of the discussions about Jennifer Business College as a child. But I thought Cortez Peters trained my great uncle. According to your chronology, it must have been the other way around. W.E Jennifer Jr. (Uncle Bill) also had a sister who was a diva in the mold of Dorothy Dandridge. She spent a lot of time in Europe as did Ms. Dandridge. She was surely a big part of the Jennifer Society Orchestra; and she sang with other local musicians such as Duke Ellington.

    My grandfather, Harold J. Jennifer Sr. was in the law class at Howard with his brother WE Jennifer Jr. He owned Jennifer Realty Company and was a highly respected investor in Washington. His son (my father) Harold Jennifer Jr. was Executive Director of the Baltimore Civic Center from 1966-76-a trailblazing job for a Black man during that period.

    And now my children, the fifth generation of Jennifers are comprised of four college graduates/professionals and one college junior. The quality genes have transcended through five generations; and it is a beautiful thing!

  2. W.E. Jennifer's sister's name was Jewell Jennifer.