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."
Jennings was born into slavery at Montpelier in 1799. He moved to the White House at about 10 when Madison became the fourth president in 1809.
"The city was a dreary place," he reported several decades later in his memoir, "A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison."
On that August day in 1814, "Mrs. Madison ordered dinner to be ready at 3, as usual; I set the table myself, and brought up the ale, cider, and wine, and placed them in the coolers," Jennings recalled. But there was no time to eat. A messenger galloped up, shouting, "Clear out, clear out!"
The painting and some silver were packed and the household fled to Georgetown to take a ferry.
"Mr. Madison, I think, was one of the best men that ever lived," Jennings reported. "He always dressed wholly in black. . . . He never had but one suit at a time. He had some poor relatives that he had to help, and wished to set them an example of economy in the matter of dress."
"I was always with Mr. Madison till he died" in 1836, Jennings wrote, "and shaved him every other day for sixteen years."
Dolley sold Jennings to an insurance agent in Washington for $200, then Webster bought him for $120 and gave him his freedom papers. Dolley was impoverished, and Jennings sometimes gave her money out of his own pocket. He died at 75 in 1874.
Jennings's story was known to historians because of his memoir, but some contemporary Washingtonians were unaware of their personal connection.
Marshall's father apparently knew the story but shared few details with his son before his death about two years ago. In other branches of the family there were rumors of a connection, and in others the story was kept very much alive.
Marshall was accustomed to thinking of his family as historic -- but on the Marshall side, not the Jennings side. Jennings's granddaughter Pauline -- Raleigh's great-grandmother -- married Charles H. Marshall, a doctor and leading member of the black community. They moved into the house on P Street in the 1890s. He would put on his white jacket, get his horse named Prince and his buggy, and make house calls. C. Herbert Marshall Jr. continued his father's tradition and set up a practice next door. They were civil rights advocates and pillars of Nineteenth Street Baptist Church.
Now, says Raleigh Marshall, tours will sometimes stop outside the house, and he'll hear the guides speak of the Marshall family as one of the last of the old African American families still living in Georgetown.
But Paul Jennings? This was history laid over history.
"It's very important to appreciate and learn about that history, but I'm not trying to use that as a springboard to my own agenda," Marshall said. "I don't lean on their success at all. I celebrate the success of my ancestors, I don't rely on them."
Hugh C. Alexander, 56, of Olney, a computer project manager for Prince George's County, who is descended from another of Jennings's five children, said that in his branch of the family the Jennings story was not news. His mother, Sylvia Jennings Alexander, 94, still speaks of it with pride, sitting in a chair in her home near Charlottesville with a picture of Jennings on the wall behind her.
"I was raised on stories of Paul Jennings," Hugh Alexander said. "We were able to relate what Washington was like when Paul was here and how the politics and social climate has changed. That was the big thing."
But like members of the other branches who filed into the East Room on Monday, until recently Alexander didn't know he had so many cousins.
They emerged from the private viewing pleased and moved.
"To actually go into the East Room and stand before the Gilbert Stuart portrait just closed the whole loop of history," Alexander said. "People got very quiet."
The group posed for family pictures, the Jennings family tree, with a story to share.
Staff writer Steve Vogel contributed to this report.