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Tuesday, March 5, 2024

"e Little Girl of Rotherwood Mansion"


Reprinted with permission from former Kingsport City Manager Jeff Fleming:

Virgealia “Jill” Ellis was a leap-year baby in 1928. Since 2024 is a leap year (and February is Black History Month) I wanted to honor her. 

Mrs. Ellis was the counselor for generations of students at Douglass High School (before integration) and Dobyns-Bennett High School (after integration), including me.  

She made a lasting impression, and I was honored to be asked to deliver a eulogy on her behalf in 2021. I was unaware of most of these things while growing up as her student.

Virgealia “Jill” Denny Looney Ellis was a leap year baby in 1928. Since 2024 is a leap year, I wanted to honor her. Mrs. Ellis was the counselor for generations of students at both Douglass High School (before integration) and Dobyns-Bennett High School (after integration), including me.  She made a lasting impression, and I was honored to be asked to deliver a eulogy on her behalf in 2021.  

I was unaware of most of these things while growing up as her student. What I remember most was her jovial, encouraging personality. Her parents were employed as the live-in caretakers of Rotherwood Mansion by wealthy New York financier John B. Dennis during the Jim Crow South.  

She was the only child in the mansion and Mr. Dennis took a personal interest in her education and upbringing–in fact, her middle name was “Denny”.  He never had children of his own, so he directed his attention toward her.  He affectionately called her, “Little Girl”.  

She said that he admonished her to, “read, Little Girl, read!”, so she did. He also gave her his pocket change each year as he returned to his native Oyster Bay, New York (on Long Island). She recounted that her father, the butler, would appear in the room and announce, “Mr. Dennis, Oyster Bay calling.” 

She was caught in the transitional years post-slavery, but before integration and served as a bridge between the black and white communities. She was teased by the black community for arriving to school in a limousine, but not fully accepted by the white community because of the laws and customs of the day.

Undeterred, she lived her life as a daily example that people are just people. She devoted her lifetime to admonishing the children of Kingsport (black & white) to read, learn, and aspire to be the best they can be–just like John B. Dennis did for her. She raised an amazing family who still carry on her legacy and make an impact in their own respective communities. 

She wrote a children’s book, “Denny at Rotherwood-God Talks To Me” from which many of the illustrations and photographs are taken.

Jill Ellis was a Kingsport treasure. She freely shared her life stories of growing up in times that are hard for us to imagine and uncomfortable to discuss.  A time of segregation and the struggle for civil rights.  She was kind, optimistic, and focused on leaving a better world for future generations. 

And she did. 

Her smile and the brightness in her eyes always drew a similar response from all she met.  And she especially passed that trait along to her daughters.  She was the personification of God’s grace – freely given and totally undeserved.

Her stories were authentic, important, and priceless. She always spoke so matter-of-factly. This is the way it was.  And this is what we did. She channeled her energy into improving herself and those who knew her. 

She didn’t dwell on the things that divide us, she focused on our shared humanity and the common struggles we all face in trying to find our way in this world. She made life better one person and one life at a time.

I am one of those lives. I was her student. She was my counselor.  And I take her life lessons with me every day.  She lives on in the hundreds and hundreds of people she influenced.

She was the last living connection to the founding fathers of 1917.  Neither John B. Dennis nor J. Fred Johnson had children or descendants. Kingsport was their legacy.  And she was their self-described “little girl” and only child living in Rotherwood Mansion during modern Kingsport’s formative years.


As my mama used to say, “Oh to go back in time and be a fly on the wall.”  She was an eyewitness to history. And thankfully she shared her memories and passed along her stories to the community and her family.

She recalled daily life in Rotherwood Mansion as the hub of development in early Kingsport. She observed the steady stream of visiting investors who were being recruited to build this city of industry. She recalled her father walking into the room, announcing “Mr. Dennis, New York calling.”

She remembered the fine, horse-drawn hunting carriage that her dad brought out for special guests – including George Eastman.

While she lived in Rotherwood Mansion among Kingsport’s elite, she attended the segregated Douglass school. Her dad drove her to school in Rotherwood’s limousine. She would get out of the car with a big bow in her hair – and as you might expect, the kids would tease her because she was different. She was caught between two worlds.

And each evening she would return to the mansion.

She shared that John B. Dennis would save up his pocket change and give it to her when he returned to Oyster Bay, New York each year.  Yes, the same Oyster Bay as President Theodore Roosevelt.

That pocket change later paid her tuition at boarding school after her father passed and could no longer drive her to Kingsport for school.

She recalled John B. Dennis’ library and his insatiable appetite for books and knowledge – geography, literature, and science.  He admonished her, “Read! Read!”  So she did.

And she began a lifelong thirst for knowledge that lead to a college education and distinguished career. She taught at Douglass and moved with integration. Of all the many distinguished teachers that ever taught in the history of Kingsport City Schools, she was in the inaugural Hall of Fame. It was no contest.

She often spoke of her first encounter with God at Rotherwood. It came in the form of an echo. She found a spot in the courtyard and yelled, “Hello, I love you” and she heard an echo come back, “I love you”. She told her mama she talked to God and He answered. It was an experience so vivid she remembered it the rest of her life. She said there are forces in play all around us every day that we don’t comprehend and can’t explain. They’re bigger than us. That’s why it’s called faith. It’s about believing something we cannot prove.

One thing’s for sure – an echo is a reflection. You get back what you give.

And Mrs. Ellis’ echoes are truly timeless because the children of the children of the children that she influenced will make it so.