Post by Shelby Taraba, James Madison Center for Civic Engagement Fellow, 2018-2019
On Monday April 8, the James Madison Center for Civic Engagement and D.E.E.P. Impact collaborated on the coordination and facilitation of a tent talk about Paul Jennings and the naming of the new residence hall on campus. The talk was opportunity for students, faculty and staff to learn more about Paul Jennings and to deliberate on the naming of the new residence hall for him.
Paul Jennings, an enslaved African American who served the Madison family both at Montpelier and in Washington, D.C., bought his freedom, was a community leader and memoirist. His brief volume, entitled A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison, is considered the first memoir about life at the White House. It’s also a rich firsthand account of the relationship between slave and slaveholder—even more valuable for its insight into a system that was at odds with its perpetrators’ values. Jennings’ story is exceptional in comparison to the experience of other enslaved individuals of the time.
Questions to students:
- Who was Paul Jennings? After learning the background on who Paul Jennings was, do you support the naming of the residence hall after him? Why or why not?
- James Madison’s writings express knowledge that slavery was immoral, yet he owned over 600 slaves on his Virginia Plantation, including Paul Jennings. “We have seen the Mere Distinction of Colour made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.” -James Madison 1787.
- How do we judge the legacy and morality of historical figures who actively took part in unjust systems, especially when they knew it was wrong?
- What responsibility do we or others have to advocating for and/or implementing change to unjust systems when we are benefiting from those systems?
- JMU has three buildings named in 1917 and 1918 after Confederate figures Jackson, Ashby, and Maury Halls. JMU VP of Student Affairs Dr. Tim Miller, said that naming a residence hall after Paul Jennings is “the first step” on the university’s path.
- What do namings and remembrances say about the values of James Madison University, both in the past and present?
- What do you believe are the next steps for JMU to take to create a more inclusive environment for diverse backgrounds and perspectives and for confronting difficult racist histories at JMU and elsewhere?
Many student responses expressed support for the decision to name the dorm after Paul Jennings:
- I am proud to be a Duke! I think we have to acknowledge all aspects of the past and this is part of it! While it may be a little late, better late than never. Go Dukes!
- I think the new building name is a good way to raise awareness about parts of history that maybe we don’t want to talk about.
- I think it’s helpful and responsible that we are offering multiple perspectives to history by highlighting slavery through this naming, rather than only representing the “victors” of history.
- Not everyone is perfect. History shouldn’t be forgotten! This is a good idea! (Most people don’t know Madison had slaves).
- Those who don’t learn from and acknowledge their history are doomed to repeat it. Heck yes Paul Jennings.
Other student responses included constructive criticisms of the administration’s decision the name the new dorm after Paul Jennings, including:
- JMU is about as capitalist and “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” as a university can get. Renaming a building after Jennings is a good idea and a step in the right direction but JMU has a much further way to go to be truly progressive.
- Opportunity to acknowledge James Madison’s past and imperfections, but it could have been approached differently (would have been better naming an academic building).
- We need to acknowledge the significance of each name given to a building. Ignoring them is saying we are okay with their negative actions.
- I think it is a good step toward acknowledging the struggles of black folk but if we do not get rid of the other confederate names on campus it is kind of pointless.
Students who expressed support with the university’s decision also followed those praises with emphasis on the importance of next steps, such as:
- I think we should continue to recognize diversity on campus in other ways and events like this should not stop!
- While it is a step in the right direction, choosing Jennings seems like the easy way out.
- If we name the New Dorm after Paul Jennings then we must address the ways in which our building names are complicit in white supremacy and the perpetuation of racism.
- There should be next steps, because we, JMU, need to keep thriving with these helpful steps.
- JMU needs to provide greater contextualization for building names after confederate soldiers IF we are to keep the names there needs to be more discussion with students.
Throughout the day, we were able to have meaningful conversations with students of varying backgrounds, experiences, and perceptions regarding the naming of the new residence hall. Students have become increasingly participatory and often express their appreciation for the spaces provided to discuss issues they care about. Although this is a contentious topic on campus, discourse should not be thwarted or discouraged, but instead should be a catalyst for making the university a more inclusive and progressive institution that is interested in hearing students’ needs and serving them adequately. It is encouraging to see events like this one happening on campus, and we should do more to increase student knowledge, participation and collaboration, especially on contentious issues.
More about Paul Jennings (adapted from Montpelier’s The Life of Paul Jennings)
Paul Jennings was born in 1799 at Montpelier to an enslaved woman about whom we know very little except that she was granddaughter of a Native American. His father was Benjamin Jennings, a white British merchant, but, as was the rule of the day, Jennings’s mother’s status kept him firmly under the yoke of slavery.
As a household slave, Paul Jennings’s duties were confined to the domestic. After 1817, he likely lived in Montpelier’s South Yard, close enough to the house to be available to the family at a moment’s notice.
At age 10, he accompanied the Madisons to Washington after James was elected president. He later described the nation’s new capital as “a dreary place.”
The Madisons took Jennings back to Montpelier from Washington at the age of 18, and he would serve as Madison’s personal slave until the former’s death in 1836, as detailed in a Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison.
I was always with Mr. Madison till he died, and shaved him every other day for sixteen years. For six months before his death, he was unable to walk, and spent most of his time reclined on a couch; but his mind was bright, and with his numerous visitors he talked with as much animation and strength of voice as I ever heard him in his best days. I was present when he died. That morning Sukey brought him his breakfast, as usual. He could not swallow. His niece, Mrs. Willis, said, “What is the matter, Uncle Jeames?” “Nothing more than a change of mind, my dear.”
Paul and Fanny Jennings had five children—Felix, Frances, John, Franklin, and William. The latter three would go on to fight on the side of the Union in the Civil War. His second wife, Desdemona Brooks, died as well, and Jennings married Amelia Dorsey in 1870, spending his final four years with her.
Though Jennings chose to speak only very highly of both James and Dolley in his 1863 memoir, it’s probable from other records that Jennings supported an 1848 mass slave escape attempt on the schooner Pearl. Two years before, he had negotiated his own freedom—not, as he had hoped, via Dolley Madison directly as outlined in James Madison’s will, but with statesman Daniel Webster. Dolley, who apparently considered freeing Jennings or selling him to her son Payne Todd, finally sold Jennings for $200 to an insurance agent named Pollard Webb. Webster then bought Jennings for $120, allowing him to purchase his own freedom at a rate of $8 per month.
Paul 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. He began working at the Pension Office as a “laborer” (a term that encompassed many clerk-like duties) in 1853, eventually bought property on L Street, and lived there with his third wife, Amelia Dorsey, with his daughter and grandchildren next door. During his tenure as free man, he would occasionally visit the now-impoverished Dolley Madison and even provide “small sums of money from [his] own pocket” if he found her wanting.