Clarification to This Article
The article referred to Madison as the father of the Bill of Rights. Madison sponsored the 10 constitutional amendments that became known as the Bill of Rights. George Mason, who argued for such an enumeration of rights and whose 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights influenced the Bill of Rights, is also known by that nickname.

A Washingtonian Discovers an Ancestor Who Was a Slave in Madison's White House

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By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 25, 2009

History has a way of sneaking up on a family, changing how its members see their place in the world. Sometimes it's a skeleton that bursts out of the closet. But sometimes, what's lost and suddenly found is sublime and amazing.

A few years ago, Raleigh Marshall was finally getting around to sorting through several generations' worth of accumulated stuff in the family's ancestral home at 2710 P St. NW in Georgetown. He found a pair of heavy old lamps. He showed them to his father.

Oh yeah, said the old man. Those lamps came from Dolley Madison.

"I was like, okaaaayyy," Marshall was saying Monday, telling the story in the same red-brick rowhouse with the arched doorway. It was the story of how he came to discover that he is the great-great-great-grandson of Paul Jennings -- a slave who worked for James Madison in the White House, who helped Dolley save valuables from the mansion hours before the British burned it during the War of 1812, who dictated the nation's first White House staff memoir, who repaid Daniel Webster for buying his freedom in 1847, who helped plot the ill-fated slave escape aboard the Pearl in 1848, and who founded what would become several lines of accomplished African American Washingtonians.

"Big shoes to fill," said Marshall, who just turned 26, works in information technology and is engaged to be married to a social worker named Nicole Wirsch. "Some people react well to big shoes to fill. Some don't. I think I'm one who reacts well."

Then he shut the door of the rowhouse and headed off to pay a visit to the White House, where his ancestor was the enslaved footman to the father of the Bill of Rights, and where now at last a black man is president -- though vacationing Monday in Martha's Vineyard.

Marshall is still catching up to the details of his ancestor's role in American history, and shaking his head over how excited total strangers are about it. It's a new piece of his identity, and he is trying it on for size. So are many members of the disparate branches of Jennings's family tree, which lost touch with each other a generation or more ago.

Nearly two dozen of the extended clan had a family reunion of sorts Monday at the White House. It was the 195th anniversary of the flight from the White House and the rescue of Gilbert Stuart's famous full-length portrait of George Washington, hours ahead of the invading British, on Aug. 24, 1814. Dolley Madison ordered the canvas pulled from the frame, an operation Jennings witnessed and probably assisted. The portrait now hangs in the East Room.

One of the relatives, Marshall's newfound cousin Angela Hayes-Toliver, had no idea of how the nation's growing pains toward equality figured so prominently in her family's past. "This is real significant to me," she said. "I'm a Washingtonian. I worked for the VA. I used to sit in Lafayette Square on a bench eating lunch. I didn't know about the connections all around me."

After living at the White House and at Montpelier, Madison's mansion in Orange, Va., Jennings worked in Dolley Madison's house at the northeast corner of Lafayette Square, visible today in pretty yellow as part of a court complex. As a free man, he bought a lot and built a house at 1804 L St. NW, now the site of a Borders.

Washingtonians get used to history being all around. Footsteps of the founders, Civil War remembrances, civil rights monuments. But what happens when you suddenly realize it's not just your history as an American and a Washingtonian -- it's your own family's history? It's public and private at the same time.

In the midst of the reminiscing throng at the White House was Beth Taylor, the Montpelier research associate whose genealogical sleuthing, starting two years ago, helped return a family's history to itself. The visit was arranged by the Montpelier Foundation. "Paul Jennings's story," she said, referring to the ascendant sweep of six generations, "is a courageous, deliberate and successful pursuit of the right to rise."


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