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Paul Jennings spent more than half his life as an enslaved African American servant to Founding Father James Madison and his wife, Dolley Madison, before earning his freedom and becoming a homeowner in the District of Columbia.
A young eyewitness to the evacuation of the White House during the War of 1812, Jennings decades later wrote an important memoir of his time in the nation’s capital during the Madison presidency. The memoir challenged claims that Dolley Madison saved a portrait of George Washington from the 1814 fire.
On Friday, James Madison University in Virginia honored Jennings by naming a new student residence hall for him. Paul Jennings Hall, with 500 beds, is expected to open in the fall on the campus in Harrisonburg.
It marks the latest milestone in the quest of Virginia’s public universities to acknowledge the centrality of slavery in the state’s history.
The flagship University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson a decade after his term as U.S. president, and the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, founded in 1693 not far from the site where the first African slaves arrived in the colony of Virginia in 1619, have launched extensive efforts on that front in recent years.
Now JMU, a much younger university located in the Shenandoah Valley, is taking a significant step.
“Naming what will be a vibrant hub of student activity after Paul Jennings allows us to provide important and inclusive context to the complex story of James Madison — known as ‘the Father of the Constitution’ — and the central paradox of the founding of our republican democracy,” university President Jonathan R. Alger said in a statement. “As we continue to recognize Madison’s pivotal role in the founding of our country, . . . we must also confront as an institution that Madison profited from the ownership of slaves.
“Paul Jennings was an important historical figure in his own right, and overcame hardship to leave an impressive legacy.”
The school that would become JMU was founded in 1908 as a women’s college, more than 30 years after Jennings died in 1874. It has about 22,000 students, men and women. About 5 percent of its undergraduates are black. Among JMU’s graduates is a Jennings descendant, Raleigh Marshall, who earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2005.
Marshall said in a statement that his ancestor’s story was one of “relentless perseverance — being born into slavery but ending his life as a father, property owner, abolitionist and respected community leader. His story is intellectually engaging, inspirational, and important to know to have a more complete understanding of our shared history.”
Jennings was born in 1799 at the Madison estate of Montpelier, where he worked as a “house slave” and where he learned to read, write and play the violin, according to a historical account at the Montpelier memorial and museum.
Jennings moved to Washington soon after Madison was elected president in 1808. He later described the arrival in his book, “A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison,” published in 1865.
“When Mr. Madison was chosen President, we came on and moved into the White House; the east room was not finished, and Pennsylvania Avenue was not paved,” Jennings wrote.
Scholars say Jennings wrote one of the most vivid accounts of what happened in the White House as British troops approached in the War of 1812.
“Great alarm existed, and some feeble preparations for defence were made,” Jennings wrote.
As the British marched from Bladensburg, Md., to Washington on Aug. 24, 1814, Jennings recalled that a military adviser assured the president he was in no danger. Madison rode to Bladensburg to see what was happening.
At the White House, Dolley Madison prepared for dinner.
“Mrs. Madison ordered dinner to be ready at 3, as usual,” Jennings wrote. “I set the table myself, and brought up the ale, cider, and wine, and placed them in the coolers, as all the Cabinet and several military gentlemen and strangers were expected.”
Jennings challenged a popular account of who saved the portrait of the first president. “It has often been stated in print, that when Mrs. Madison escaped from the White House, she cut out from the frame the large portrait of Washington (now in one of the parlors there), and carried it off. This is totally false,” Jennings wrote.
“She had no time for doing it. It would have required a ladder to get it down. All she carried off was the silver in her reticule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off, and were expected every moment. John Suse (a Frenchman, then door-keeper, and still living) and Magraw, the President’s gardener, took it down and sent it off on a wagon, with some large silver urns and such other valuables as could be hastily got hold of.”
Jennings remained with James Madison until the former president’s death in 1836. Thirteen years later, Dolley Madison sold him for $200, according to the White House Historical Association.
Daniel Webster, a U.S. senator, then bought Jennings for $120, with the arrangement that Jennings would buy his own freedom for $8 a month.
“Jennings firmly established himself and his family in Washington’s free black community, which was at that time three times as large as its enslaved community,” according to Montpelier.
Jennings, who found a job working at the Pension Office, bought a house on L Street, where he lived with his third wife, Amelia Dorsey.
In the meantime, Dolley Madison fell into poverty. It was Jennings, a former enslaved man, who gave the former first lady money to survive.
“In the last years of her life, before Congress purchased her husband’s papers, she was in a state of absolute poverty, and I think sometimes suffered for the necessaries of life,” Jennings wrote. “While I was a servant to Mr. Webster, he often sent me to her with a market-basket full of provisions, and told me whenever I saw anything in the house that I thought she was in need of, to take it to her. I often did this, and occasionally gave her small sums from my own pocket.”
DeNeen L. Brown, who has been an award-winning staff writer in The Washington Post Metro, Magazine and Style sections, has also worked as the Canada bureau chief for The Washington Post. As a foreign correspondent, she wrote dispatches from Greenland, Haiti, Nunavut and an icebreaker in the Northwest Passage. Follow