Perhaps the struggle to survive helped shape the character of John Mann Sr., who was born in 1930 – at a time when survival was a day-to-day goal for many working-class Americans.
Or it could’ve been the nine-mile round-trip hike he and his sister made to elementary school. Or the challenges of being black in mid-20th-century Virginia. “The white bus went right by us, calling us names and everything else out the window,” he says.
Whatever it was, Mann clearly developed a work ethic, endurance and determination early in life, and it persists now, even in his 80th year.
Or as he puts it: “You have to do what you have to do and do it right.”
Rappahannock County is the current beneficiary of Mann’s energies. After working three jobs for decades to feed his family of six, Mann volunteers at the Rappahannock Food Pantry so other families have enough to eat.
“I’m helping somebody,” Mann says. “Like the old ones, they don’t have any means or ways.” Mann first showed up to help when the Pantry opened last June. After his first day, his partner, Doris Jones, remembers him saying, “I’d better go back and help them some more.”
“The next thing, he’s going every day [that they’re open],” says Jones. “He’s having a real good time.” Three days every week, Mann puts his still-robust physique into unloading deliveries, stocking shelves and carrying groceries to clients’ cars.
For 11 years, Jones and Mann have shared a home by the edge of a pond nestled in the woods of Rappahannock County. Jones’ horses graze in fields on the other side of the pond. While she’s happy with their quiet life, Jones believes Mann needs more social interaction — and the Food Pantry “fills the gap,” she says.
Mann’s grandfather, John Moore, set an example of hard work. He lived with his grandparents in Midland until he was eight years old. As a boy, Mann observed his grandfather hiking four miles to work on a farm, and at the end of the day, four miles back home.
Eventually Mann moved to Warrenton to live with his mother. Like his work at the Food Pantry, his first job involved food.
“The kids had a thing called a buckboard,” Mann says. “It was a homemade wagon with a box on it.” They earned money by hauling groceries in their buckboards from the two markets in town.
After constructing his own buckboard, Mann went to Safeway and offered his service to elderly shoppers. “Some paid me and some didn’t,” he remembers. “Gimme a dime or a nickel or something like that – I took it, whatever it was.”
Mann’s next venture was to learn the craft of barbering. “I was a professional barber at age 14,” he says. “During the flat-top days, remember that?” He made this new trend his specialty.
When his chair was empty, he shined shoes in the barbershop’s three-seat shoeshine stand. “Oh, gosh, it was a wonderful time,” says Mann, with a grin on his face. “I just enjoyed it. I enjoy helping people now.”
Mann attended all the grades offered in the black high school. Getting there was a little easier than in Midland — he walked only five miles. “And the white school bus would pass us every morning on our way to school,” Mann says. “Of course, we weren’t allowed to get on it.”
Mann’s helping role continued during his enlistment in the United States Army. Six days a week, for two years, he dispensed medicine to the 141st General Hospital in Sasebo, Japan.
Upon returning from the Korean War, Mann married the girl who had waited for him, Delores Brewer. Their family began and grew.
Mann describes his routine. “I’d be at the barbershop at 8 o’clock at night and then I’d go somewhere and tend bar until maybe 12, one o’clock,” he says. “I needed the money.”
Jones says he was much in demand for private parties because “he dressed up right spiffy.” She adds that Mann was well organized and attentive to details, such as pouring champagne at a wedding reception at just the right moment.
Then Mann got a break.
“I was blessed because I had a good friend, a white guy who was working at the Warrenton Training Center,” Mann says. His customer at the barbershop offered to get him a position at the federal installation.
“Segregation was still rampant,” says Mann. “They put me in maintenance. They wouldn’t give me anything like carpentry work. So he put me on the lawn. Well, that was fine. I could do it.”
However, Mann did build his home. “Fifty by thirty — fifty long, thirty wide. Full basement. Three bedrooms. Living room. Dining room and kitchen,” he says. “I built that with these hands.
“People told me, ‘You can’t build a house.’ I told them: You can’t tell me what I can’t do. I know what I can do.”
After he started working at the training center, he barbered on Saturdays. “And if someone wanted a haircut on Sunday, I went up there and let him in and cut then, too,” Mann says.
He also continued bartending. Mann recalls a memorable stint of three parties in one day. Often only hours after coming home from tending bar at a party, Mann would rise for his day job at the Training Center. “I’m not complaining,” he says. “I just had to do what I had to do.”
A client at the barbershop suggested one day that he run for a seat on the Warrenton Town Council. “At one time I knew everybody that walked in the town of Warrenton,” says Mann. He agreed to consider the idea.
“It wasn’t really that I wanted to do it,” Mann says. But there were no black representation on the council. His wife and friends persuaded him to stand for election.
“Well, I didn’t think I would win, being the first black to ever try it.” Mann says. “I got more votes than everybody else on the council.”
Mann represented the 1st Ward for 14 years. “Oh, I was busy as a bee,” he says, chuckling.
After 29 years, Mann retired from the Training Center. He no longer cuts hair at the barbershop or tends bar. His children are grown, and his wife died. He resigned his council seat.
What remains constant is Mann’s attitude toward others. “He always wants to be helpful,” says Mimi Forbes, director of the Rappahannock Food Pantry.
“For someone to be volunteering at his age is pretty amazing,” says Forbes, noting that Mann is often on his feet all day.
Mann has a nickname that he gave himself, a play on his middle initial of E.
It stands, Mann says, for “Ever-ready.”