Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Mrs. Jean Vernor (Dr. Chester) Jennings, 1859-1939
By Amanda Ritter-Maggio, English instructor, University of Arkansas Community College at Hope-Texarkana.
Jean Vernor was born on April 2, 1859, in Lumpkin, Georgia, where her father, Rev. William H. Vernor, served as president of the Masonic Female College. The next year, the family, which included Rev. Vernor, his wife Ellen Hannum Vernor, Jean, and Jean's two older siblings, Ann and Henry, moved to Tennessee, where Rev. Vernor became president of the Masonic Female College in Lewisburg. The Vernors were living in Tennessee when the Civil War erupted; Rev. Vernor volunteered for service and became a chaplain for Hardee's Corps, Bragg's Army in Tennessee. In the late 1860s-early 1870s, Rev. Vernor pastored churches in Nashville, TN and Palestine, TX and welcomed three more daughters, Kathaleen (Kate), Ella, and Minnie. From 1873-1877, the family lived in Brazos County, TX, where Rev. Vernor led a church and served as president of the Bryan Female Seminary. The family then made its way to Little Rock, Arkansas, where Rev. Vernor worked as the district superintendent for the American Bible Society and frequently gave sermons in both Presbyterian and Methodist churches in central Arkansas. In 1882, Baylor University awarded Rev. Vernor an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree. That same year, Jean's mother died in Little Rock.
Jean married Dr. Chester Jennings, a graduate of Tulane University and practicing physician in Little Rock, on February 10, 1885. The wedding was a private affair, but it was chronicled in great detail in both of the city's newspapers. The couple had one son, Edwin Rustin, in 1886. The couple later adopted their niece, Brice; in addition, Jean's sister Minnie also lived with the family.
By the early 1900s, Jean's frequent and outspoken contributions to the state's newspapers regarding suffrage and women's issues had earned her the nickname “the keeper of the light.” She often wrote opinion pieces and letters-to-the editor in response to state and world news events. In 1911, Jean wrote an impassioned plea for the life of Angelina Napolitano, a pregnant Italian woman and mother of four, sentenced to death for murdering her husband in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada. She argued that the woman's husband “was active in the pollution of the source of life and the purity of childhood and womanhood.” She wrote, “Across the miles intervening comes the anguished cry of this sister, who is, ‘even as you and I,' guarding to the best of her knowledge and ability that which is entrusted to all women, the source and purity of life. Let us awaken to the fact that the experience of this woman may be the experience of the little ones whose lives are dearer than our own.” She continued, “The hour has struck when the time-worn adage, ‘the hand that rocks the cradle rocks the world,' should be stripped of its maudlin sentimentality, leaving to the awakened and awakening consciousness of womanhood the knowledge of her own inherited power, by exercising it, instead of drifting with the tide in lulling to sleep the consciousness of responsibilities, thereby repeating the history of the ages.”
In June of 1913, Jean wrote a scathing letter-to-the-editor of the Arkansas Gazette regarding statements made by the judge in response to a lynching of a black man who was found guilty of raping and murdering a fourteen-year-old girl in Hot Springs. The judge expressed regret at the mob's actions; he was quoted as saying, “The law is sufficient,” but Jean argued that for women in girls in Arkansas, laws were “woefully insufficient.” She pointed out that since women were not permitted to serve as jurors in the man's trial, women had no say in the law or the punishments dictated under it. She felt that if women had been allowed to be part of the jury, the accused would have received a more just punishment, and therefore the mob would not have resorted to violence. The judge also stated that “two wrongs never make a right,” but Jean argued that “The first wrong against humanity is committed when the male abrogates to himself the all-sufficient wisdom of making the laws under which women, girls, and children must live.” She continued, “Only in equality and combined interaction in life's activities can true progress be made. Experience supports nature's teaching, that an injury to one half is an injury to the whole. ... Experience teaches that without woman's advice, counsel, and cooperation, the laws made by men are insufficient to protect girls and women.” She wrote, “The women of any community would derive more benefit from the study of [Olive Schriener's book Women and Labor] and listening no longer to the word ‘obey,' as hurled from pulpit and rostrum. The study of the sentence, ‘and gave them dominion over the earth,' will open the way for woman to take her place by man's side in making and enforcing of all laws affecting our common humanity, and the finding and commensurate punishment for the crimes committed upon her alone.”
Jean was a founding member of the Political Equality League, organized in Little Rock in 1911. She held the office of corresponding secretary and faithfully reported the organization's meeting minutes to the Arkansas Gazette for publication. She was instrumental in publicizing the PEL's May 2, 1914 Equal Suffrage Day celebration at the Old State House. She also served on the League's State Organization Committee in 1914. In March of 1917, she was in the first group of women in Little Rock to register to pay their poll taxes in order to vote in the upcoming primary election. In June of 1919, Governor Brough addressed “fifty prominent suffrage leaders,” Jean among them, to inform them that he would call a special legislative session for the purpose of voting on the federal equal suffrage amendment.
Chester became ill and died on December 11, 1919. Jean continued living in Little Rock with her sisters, Minnie Vernor and Kathaleen Stafford. Jean died July 15, 1939 and is buried with husband in Mt. Holly Cemetery in Little Rock.
“13 More Pay Poll Tax.” Daily Arkansas Gazette, 24 March 1917. Newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/image/146709285.
“A Chapter of Robbery, Loss, and Recovery.” Nashville Union nd American, 2 June 1875. Newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/image/80784958.
“Arkansas.” History of Woman Suffrage Vol. VI: 1900-1920. Ed. Ida Husted Harper, pp. 17-18. https://chswg.binghamton.edu/docs/historyofwomansuffrage_vol6.pdf.
“Church History” First Presbyterian Church--Bryan, Texas. https://fpcbryan.org/church-history
Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed 24 June 2019), memorial page for Dr Chester Jennings (27 Sep 1857–11 Dec 1919), Find A Grave Memorial no. 8000349, citing Mount Holly Cemetery, Little Rock, Pulaski County, Arkansas, USA ; Maintained by jwb (contributor 47891638) .
“First Presbyterian Church.” Anderson County, Texas Church Records: Texas Genealogy Trails. http://genealogytrails.com/tex/pineywoods/anderson/churches.html
Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed 24 June 2019), memorial page for Ellen W. W. Hannum Vernor (22 Apr 1836–31 Oct 1882), Find A Grave Memorial no. 199507093, citing Oakland and Fraternal Historic Cemetery Park, Little Rock, Pulaski County, Arkansas, USA ; Maintained by Richard Theilig (contributor 48339322).
Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed 24 June 2019), memorial page for Jean Vernor Jennings (2 Apr 1859–15 Jul 1939), Find A Grave Memorial no. 8000351, citing Mount Holly Cemetery, Little Rock, Pulaski County, Arkansas, USA ; Maintained by jwb (contributor 47891638).
Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed 24 June 2019), memorial page for Rev W. H. Vernor (7 Feb 1829–25 Dec 1890), Find A Grave Memorial no. 192304686, citing Oakland and Fraternal Historic Cemetery Park, Little Rock, Pulaski County, Arkansas, USA ; Maintained by Richard Theilig (contributor 48339322) .
“Gulf Presbyterian Celebrating 100 Years.” The Brazosport Facts, 1 June 1977. Newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/image/12666605.
“In Society.” Daily Arkansas Gazette, 15 Feb. 1885. Newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/image/130982979.
“Jennings Funeral Saturday Morning.” Arkansas Democrat, 12 Dec. 1919. Newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/image/166373280.
“Known Phi Gamma Delta Initiates at Maryville College.” The Archives of Phi Gamma Delta. https://www.phigam.org/maryvilleinitiates.
“Local Paragraphs.” Daily Arkansas Gazette, 10 Feb. 1885. Newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/image/130982066.
“Lynch Law Growth of Man-Made Rules.” Daily Arkansas Gazette, 24 June 1913. Newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/image/143046317.
“Mrs. Dr. Jennings Pleads for Woman.” Arkansas Democrat, 1 July 1911. Newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/image/166651666.
Obituary for Dr. Chester Jennings. Washington Telegraph, 12 Dec. 1919. Newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/image/273401120.
“Political Equality Club.” Daily Arkansas Gazette, 5 July 1914. Newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/image/138389603.
“Presbyterian Education.” Texas State Historical Association, https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/iwp01
“Session of Two Houses.” Little Rock Daily News, 18 June 1919. Newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/image/165962617.
“Study Class Meets.” Daily Arkansas Gazette, 30 Aug. 1914. Newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/image/140537275.
“Social.” Arkansas Democrat, 14 Feb. 1885. Newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/image/146947485.
“Society.” The Southern Standard, 2 May 1890. Newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/image/288909202.
“Suffragists Hold Debate.” Daily Arkansas Gazette, 19 July 1914. Newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/image/138390242.
“The City in Brief.” Daily Arkansas Gazette, 14 March 1889. Newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/image/138023931.
"United States Census, 1860." Database with images. FamilySearch. http://FamilySearch.org : 24 March 2017. From "1860 U.S. Federal Census - Population." Database. Fold3.com. http://www.fold3.com : n.d. Citing NARA microfilm publication M653. Washington, D.C.:National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.
"United States Census, 1880." Database with images. FamilySearch. https://FamilySearch.org : 14 June 2016. Citing NARA microfilm publication T9. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.
"United States Census, 1900." Database with images. FamilySearch. http://FamilySearch.org : 14 June 2016. Citing NARA microfilm publication T623. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration.
"United States Census, 1930." Database with images. FamilySearch. http://FamilySearch.org : 27 November 2018. Citing NARA microfilm publication T626. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2002.
“Veterans Who Will Receive Honor Crosses.” Arkansas Democrat, 20 April 1912. Newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/image/166391592.
“Will Celebrate Equal Suffrage Day on May 2.” Daily Arkansas Gazette, 15 March 1914. Newspapers.com, https://www.newspapers.com/image/138386443.