Monday, January 16, 2012

Paul Jennings and MLK Day

I'm looking forward to Elizabeth Dowling Taylor's new biography of Paul Jennings (above), former slave of James and Dolley Madison, who authored the first (although brief at 19 pages) White House staff memoir --- in 1865. Something to think about on the day set aside to honor the memory to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Taylor, formerly director of education at James Madison's Montpelier, almost single-handedly raised Jennings' story from obscurity and now shares it at length in, "A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons."

Born during 1799 at Montpelier, the Madison plantation, Jennings served the Madisons during their tenure in Washington (1809-1817) and was a witness when White House staffers (not Dolley Madison) rescued the famed Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington as British troops closed in to burn the presidential mansion.

He became Madison's personal manservant during 1820 at Montpelier and was at his bedside when he died in 1836. Expecting his freedom upon Madison's death, he was instead taken back to Washington during 1837 by Dolley, forced to leave his wife, Fanny, and children behind.

In addition to utilizing his services personally, Dolley rented Jennings out periodically (he reportedly was leased to the White House during 1845, the administration of James K. Polk), retaining the revenue entirely for herself.

Eventually, Dolley sold Jennings for $200 in 1846. Six months later, Daniel Webster --- familiar with Jennings and his story --- provided $120 to buy his freedom from the new owner, insurance agent Pollard Webb. Jennings then worked as Webster's servent to repay him and went on to work as a laborer for the government. He died in 1874, modestly successful financially and having been reunited with his children (his first wife died during 1844) in Washington during the 1850s.

Jennings' memoir, "A Colored Man's Reminiscenses of James Madison," was published in magazine form during 1863 and as a book during 1865. Jennings retained his fondness for both James and Dolley Madison, reportedly giving small amounts of money to the widow from his own pocket during her cash-strapped later years.

Eight of our earlier U.S. presidents were slave owners, I believe, something else to think about on MLK Day, and slave labor had a major part in construction of the White House itself.

And then there are those elements of racism that remain within many of us of a certain age, raised in places where nearly everyone was white. It wasn't until university and, later, the military, that I stopper perceiving folks who didn't look like me as, initially, the exotic "other." There's still a good deal of that going around.

In any case, this is a good day to think more about Dr. King and his legacy and our own track records and less, perhaps, about the fact we're inconvenienced because the Post Office and a variety of other public offices and institutions are closed in his honor.

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