JMU to name new residence hall after Paul Jennings, a Madison family slave

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In Fall 2019, James Madison University will open a new residence hall that will be home to 500 students and bear the name Paul Jennings Hall. Paul Jennings was an enslaved African-American who served the Madison family both at Montpelier, their estate in Virginia, and in Washington, D.C. As James Madison’s personal manservant, Jennings observed intimately the irreconcilability of one of our nation’s greatest champions for liberty and justice participating in the institution of slavery. 

“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,” said JMU President Jonathan R. Alger. “As we continue to recognize Madison’s pivotal role in the founding of our country, as an institution, we must also confront 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.  It is especially appropriate that we take this step in the year in which Virginia is acknowledging both the 400th anniversary of representative government in America and the arrival of the first enslaved African-Americans in this country.”

After James Madison’s death, Paul Jennings would go on to earn his freedom and author A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison, the first memoir about life at the White House. As a free man, he worked in the Pension Office, had a family and purchased a home in Washington. Jennings died in 1874 at age 75, leaving behind a number of descendants, including Raleigh Marshall, who graduated from JMU with a degree in computer science in 2005.

“I am very excited to hear that the JMU Board of Visitors is considering naming a residence hall after my ancestor, Paul Jennings. Jennings’ story is 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. Additionally, I think that it would help the younger generations to gain some perspective as they come of age and begin to navigate their own worlds and challenges,“ Marshall said.

The JMU Board of Visitors voted to approve the name on Feb. 8. The name of the new residence hall had been originally suggested by several students. Many campus partners offered emphatic support, among them the JMU Task Force on Inclusion, the Student Government Association, the Academic Council and the Center for Multicultural Student Services.  The university also looks forward to continued partnership with James Madison’s Montpelier as both of our institutions strive to tell Madison’s and Jennings’ stories more fully, and will continue to support endeavors to share the contributions of the enslaved community to the founding of our country.

“As a cultural institution, we're committed to illuminating the totality of our history and honoring those who are historically and systematically underrepresented, while honestly and authentically confronting the tenets on which this nation was founded and the modern legacies,” said Kat Imhoff, president and CEO of James Madison's Montpelier. “The story of Paul Jennings is one of tragedy, yes, but also one of extraordinary triumph and resolve. To honor him and his family, as part of the Madison and American story, is only fitting and speaks volumes about the university and their dedication to a more wholistic, and ultimately, honest and inclusive American narrative.”

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Published: Monday, February 11, 2019

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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