Story and photos by Holly Marcus, senior contributor
More than two hundred people gathered on Friday for the ribbon cutting ceremony for JMU’s newest residence hall, which officially opened this semester. The building was named in honor of Paul Jennings, the enslaved personal servant of James Madison during his presidency and time at Montpelier.
Jennings’ name was chosen from suggestions submitted by students in a survey conducted last year. One of the students who suggested the name said she learned of Paul Jennings after a visit to James Madison’s Montpelier. A display inside the new hall reads, “The Montpelier plantation in Orange County, Virginia, was home to as many as six generations of African Americans—more than 300 individuals—held as property by the Madison family.”
Jennings served James Madison until the former president’s death in 1836. He would remain enslaved for ten more years, until he was sold by Dolley Madison to an insurance salesman and then to statesman Daniel Webster for $120. Webster permitted Jennings to purchase his own freedom at a rate of $8 per month.
As a free man, Jennings lived and worked in Washington, D.C. The five children that he and his wife Fanny Gordon had have now extended to eight generations of descendants – a group of whom attended Friday’s ceremony. One of them, JMU graduate Raleigh Marshall, spoke of his ancestor’s achievements and said, “Having a more complete understanding of our history helps us understand each other better today.”
“I applaud JMU’s leadership on the issue of lifting the veil over American slavery in its relationship with our Founding Fathers,” Marshall continued. “It’s telling of the university’s leadership who chose to engage in such a project as this, this is very much uncharted territory.”
JMU President Jonathan Alger closed the ceremony by posing the question and challenge of “What is the next chapter for JMU?” He acknowledged that the Paul Jennings’ story represents the contribution of many people, more than just one man. President Alger said the university will continue to be more real and more inclusive, working to “close the gap between ideal and real.”
“We will continue to write the next chapter of ‘We the People.’”
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