Elizabeth Chapman Denny Vann Papers

Identifier: MSS.0476

  • Staff Only

Scope and Contents Note

This collection contains the papers of Elizabeth Chapman Denny Vann (1884 Jan. 7 - 1977 March 20). Elizabeth Vann was a Vanderbilt graduate (B.A. 1904, M.A. 1905) and New Jersey State Director of the Women's and Professional Division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s, among many other jobs. She was also involved in a number of civic organizations, including the Leonia Women's Club, the Civic Conference, and the Daughters of the American Revolution.


  • 1890 - 1977

Conditions Governing Access

Those wishing to do research in the Elizabeth Vann Papers can contact Special Collections for a more detailed item inventory of the collection.

An Appreciation of Elizabeth C. Denny Vann, by her son, Felix H. Vann, M.D.

My mother died at the age of ninety-three in Richmond, Virginia - a brief illness terminating a full and purposeful life in a broad-spectrumed career that spanned teaching; leadership in conrnuriity, civic, governmental and church affairs; and public service. She was alert and active to the very end.

Born in Fincastle, Virginia, the second daughter of a young Methodist minister (later to become a Bishop) from Winchester, Virginia and a Baltimore, Maryland, mother, her childhood was spent in an assortment of parsonages, then on the campus of the University of Virginia where her father was the Chaplain; and, later, on the campus of Vanderbilt University, daughter of the Professor of Moral and Natural Philosophy. From the age of seven on, her southern upbringing continued with her studies at Vanderbilt University, where she was trained in the classical tradition of the day. As one of the early co-eds in that institution, she received her B.A. and M.A. degrees in 1904 and 1905. A member of the Delta Delta Delta sorority at school, she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

Her variegated career began as a teacher in Agnes Scott College, Georgia. Married in 1908 to a missionary with the Southern frethocllst Church, she went with him to Rio de Janeiro where he was assigned to social settlement work and education among the dock workers of Rio. Twin sons were born to them in 1909, named for their two grandfathers. Collins died in early infancy; Felix survived.

After several years of teaching at Granberry College at Juiz de Fora, in the State of Minas Gerais, Brazil, the family returned to the United States on the evei of World War I. During these years in Brazil my mother had taught students English on a part-time basis.

After earning two masters’ degrees at Columbia University - in latin American History and in Education - my father taught at Stanford University far one year then at Brown University until the United States entered World War I. My mother continued to teach part-time everywhere we lived, entering also into local church and community activities. In Palo Alto, her initial venture into civic activity was with the local Belgian Belief Mission group, organized by Herbert Hoover.

When my father returned to Brazil in 1917, working for the National City Bank of New York and also performing patriotic service for the United States in tracing German funds that were being infiltrated through Brazil into Mexico, ny mother worked in the Censorship office in New York City, translating nail written in Portugese and Spanish.

During the surrmerof 1918, a party of National City Bank personnel and their families - we among them - traveled to South America via San Francisco and down the west coast on a Japanese steamer. We crossed the Andes by train in the middle of winter and went across the Pampas to Buenos Aires in Argentina. With no boats on which to travel because of the unrestricted submarine warfare, we crossed the Rio de la Plata to Montevideo, Uruguay. Traveling eight days by train we proceeded through southern Brazil to Sao Paulo where my father met us and took us on to Rio. Throughout these two months of arduous travel my mother was equal to all the emergencies that circumstances created. Never did her courage, good humor or faith leave her. There are many interesting - and not a few hair-raising - experiences she was fond of recounting in later years.

In Rio, she worked for the local Union Protestant Church and the International Red Cross, helped organize the work of the International YWCA and nursed many young men and U.S. sailors from a visiting warship, all of whom fell ill with the terrible influenza epidemic of 1918-19. The remaining time in Rio after the Armistice were halcyon days. I attended an American School there.

My father left the National City Bank at this time and sought other employment while my mother and I returned to Richmond to live briefly with my grandparents. My father’s extensive experience in Latin America and his knowledge of Spanish and Portugese proved useful to the Home Insurance Company of New York City, where he took over the function of organizing agencies in Central America and the Caribbean Island. He traveled for about six months each year, my mother often accompanying him during the summer months when I was in camp.

After two years in New York City, our family moved to Leonia, New Jersey in May of 1923. My mother quickly developed a host of new friends and activities in, and through, the leonia Presbyterian Church. Beginning her career in local civic and county government, she became one of the organizers of the Bergen County Women’s Democratic dub in 1925. She was later to be a County Camcrdtteewcman from her voting district. She maintained her great interest in politics for the remainder of her life, ultimately tangling with Nixon supporters, at the age of 90, in Virginia in 1974.

Her proudest work began in the early 1930’s - at the height of the Great repression - when she was invited to became the New Jersey State Director of the Women’s and Professional Division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Her executive and administrative talents proved of value in keeping many citizens of her state in useful and worthwhile occupations - enabling them to be both busy and economically solvent through those trying years. The State of New Jersey profited by maintaining the self-respect of its citizens. She supervised surveys of valuable historical records, new publications, the production of school murals and a number of other professional and engineering activities.

Her talents and varied interests led to many new directions of service. From the several women’s groups of her church she went on to the work of the State Presbyterial, into the Leonia Women’s Club, the Civic Conference, the leonia Co-operative Society which has now become the Northern Valley Co-Cp. She assisted the Black community in raising funds to build its own church and was instrumental in fostering good inter-racial relationships within the area. She constantly performed un-sung acts of charity for the less fortunate citizens of the community.

Long a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution - vitally involved with its patriotic, historical and genealogical activities - she was a founder of the Polly Wyckoff Chapter in the 1920’s, remaining an active member for over 50 years. She and her sister, Margaret Danny Dixon, over the years and at great effort wrote and published four genealogical histories of the Denny and related families tracing their forbears back to colonial times, part of the saga of America as collateral descendants spread across the land. By means of diligent detective work they were able to trace many of these descendants. When my mother became regent of the Polly Wyckoff Chapter in the 1930’s, she became involved in a cause that brought her great notoriety. She and her Chapter disagreed with the policy of the national D.A.R. with regard to a clause in the rental contract for its Constitution Hall in Washington,D.C. The clause read: “far white artists only”. The noted Negro artist, Marian Anderson, was prevented from singing there. My mother’s efforts - backed by her Chapter and other concerned D.A.R. members - brought the issue to the floor of the annual convention. Her Resolution was withdrawn when the Executive Board agreed to “consider” the matter. Cne year later this objectionable clause was quietly deleted and many Black artists have sung there since. The newspapers of the day were full of this episode.

When my father retired, my parents moved to Englewood to be near me and my family. I was practicing obstetrics and gynecology and ■ my wife, Dorothea, was practicing pediatrics. Quieter pursuits - such as omnivorous reading, voluminous correspondence with friends all over the world, stamp collecting, traveling about the country to see her many relatives plus a seccnd honeymoon for one year in Europe traveling by small car - continued to make life interesting and fruitful, My mother never lost her interest in good government - regardless of party - in both the State of New Jersey and later, Virginia and in national affairs.

During the trying days of World War II and later, the Vietnamese War in Southeast Asia, she followed the activities of her son and grandson, Richard, with both interest and anxiety as they pursued, respectively, military careers in the Army and Navy, from which both returned safely. Upon the death of her husband - Eugene Ellis Vann - in 1965 she moved to Richmond to be near her sister, Mrs. Edith Denny White, enjoying the milder winters and the close proximity of a host of nieces and nephews v.tio gave her loving attention. Blessed with a vigorous mind to the end of her years and a tremendous zest for the challenges of each day, she never suffered from boredom. In the last decade of her life, her chief activity was in writing letters to family and friends, although she had outlived most of her contemporaries. They were warm, personal, full of her thoughts and views of the life she had led, the people she had known and the politics and problems of the day. She spoke her mind freely, even to those unable to agree with her on every point. She joined the Westover Methodist Church in Richmond and made many new friends there although she no longer could take an active leadership role. During the last year of her life she lived with her sister, Mrs. Roscce Marvin White.

Her last major activity, lasting nearly five years, was assisting Dr. Henry Swint and Mrs- Seymour Samuels, both of Nashville, in collecting archives and reviewing the history of Vanderbilt University in the late 19th century for the preparation of the University’s Centennial history and celebration in 1975/76. I had the pleasure of escorting her, in May 1975, to her 72nd Alumni Reunion on the campus. She was able*to walk over the entire campus in one morning, regaling me with stories of her early life in Nashville and on the campus. She was not only the oldest graduate present and the major honoree at a dinner of all the “Quinks” -graduates of more than 50 years - but also truly the “Belle of the Ball”.

She spoke of her many blessings throughout her long life and of the happiness she had known and shared with loving friends and relatives. Cn the occasion of a Ninetieth Birthday Party she stated: “I wouldn’t mind living another ten years - but not another ninety”! All of us in our family who survive her - including her two great grandsons Gene and Mike - remember her for the wonderful and inspiring person that she was. She will be missed - but never forgotten.


19.32 Linear Feet

Language of Materials



This collection contains the papers of Elizabeth Chapman Denny Vann (1884 Jan. 7 - 1977 March 20). Elizabeth Vann was a Vanderbilt graduate (B.A. 1904, M.A. 1905) and New Jersey State Director of the Women's and Professional Division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s, among many other jobs. She was also involved in a number of civic organizations, including the Leonia Women's Club, the Civic Conference, and the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Physical Location

Offsite Storage, Special Collections & Archives

Finding Aid for the Elizabeth Chapman Denny Vann Papers
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Repository Details

Part of the Vanderbilt University Special Collections Repository

Special Collections Library
1101 19th Ave. S.
Nashville TN 37212 United States


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