Becoming Our Ideal Self: Paul Jennings Hall

A view of James Madison's Montpelier Estate

P/C: Ron Cogswell via Flickr

In President Alger’s February update, he publicly shared our university’s intentions to name the newest residence hall after Paul Jennings, a man who lived the vast majority of his life enslaved to James and Dolley Madison. This decisive act in naming has come with oversight, thought, and strategic approval from key stakeholders, including descendants of Paul Jennings, the Center for Multicultural Services, the Student Government Association, and James Madison University’s Diversity Council, to name a few, as elaborated by Thomas Robertson in a recent Breeze publication.

The news of the decision came to us on Valentine’s Day, while celebrating Black History Month and attempting to meaningfully acknowledge the lives, work, and excellence of black students on our campus. When I read the announcement, I could not help but to think of the character question we in Ethical Reasoning in Action believe must play a key role in the decision making processes of our students, faculty, staff, and greater campus community.

The character question asks: What actions help me (us) become my (our) ideal self (selves)?

The action of naming our newest residence hall after the personal manservant to the namesake for our university is one that dances with this critical question of character. Although I personally believe it is an important and necessary step, even if also painful and messy, my aim in this discussion is not to appraise the action as such, but rather to consider the multiple intersections of character that come to play in this action of naming Paul Jennings Hall. To better understand how the character question manifests here, I’d like to walk through the characters of James Madison and Paul Jennings, and then look to how the naming of  our newest residence hall speaks to a process of becoming and what the “ideal self” of our institution might look like.

James Madison was a man of many contradictions. He was a both/and ingenue who believed very deeply in the limitless pursuit of knowledge, higher consciousness, and independence, while simultaneously reserving these rightful pursuits for some and not for all. This past summer, I experienced Montpelier’s critically acclaimed Mere Distinction of Colour exhibit twice. With each visit, the sticky complexity of the man of Madison became more and more tangible. Madison himself gives the namesake for this exhibit, quoted in 1787 as saying,

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.”

In Madison’s last will and testament, he made a critical decision not to free the persons enslaved on his property, only asking his wife Dolley to avoid selling the family’s slaves, unless due to bad behavior. It is apparent, then, that this abhorrent contradiction of enslaving persons of color while noticing its oppressiveness, did not elude the person of James Madison, even in his final days. Much more can be said of the character of James Madison (and Richard Brookhiser does a good job of this), but as we consider his relationship to Paul Jennings, this is where I want to take leave of it.

Paul Jennings was born into slavery in 1799 on the Montpelier estate. From an early age, Jennings was kept as a house slave and granted the rare privilege of literacy, having been taught to read and write. With this small window of opportunity, Jennings’s gift for writing historical accounts with accuracy and precision developed. You can still read Paul Jennings account of the life of James Madison in his 1865 publication, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison.

Although we will likely never have a full picture of the life and contributions of Paul Jennings, we do know that he held both James and Dolley in particularly high regard. In his book, Jennings wrote of Madison:

“Mr. Madison, I think, was one of the best men that ever lived. I never saw him in a passion, and never knew him to strike a slave, although he had over one hundred; neither would he allow an overseer to do it.” (p. 16)

Jennings’s account of Madison’s character stirs already murky waters, barring us from seeing either Madison or Jennings through one reductive dimension.

Jennings always envisioned himself free. While at Montpelier, he made multiple unsuccessful attempts to secure not only his freedom but also the freedom of other enslaved persons. Following Madison’s death, Dolley sold Jennings despite James wishes to the contrary. Eventually, Paul Jennings bought his freedom and carved out a life for himself and his family working at the Pension Office in our nation’s capital. Paul Jennings story is one of resilience, resistance, and as Raleigh Marshall says in The Washington Post, one of “relentless perseverance.”

How do the characters of James Madison and Paul Jennings intersect and impact our character as the institution of James Madison University? How are we engaged in doing the work of becoming our ideal self by acknowledging the persistent cognitive dissonance of Madison and the tremendous resilience of Jennings? Is this action a meaningful way forward on the path of acknowledgment, or is it a mere token?

At this, our predominantly white institution, where less than 5% of our undergraduate students are African American, the path to fair and equitable representation on campus is yet being uncovered. Vice President of Student Affairs Tim Miller was quoted in The Breeze as saying,

“We have a lot ahead of us, but I also think this can stand as the first step on that path.” 

There are signs that we are indeed on that path. One such sign is that descendants of Jennings have graced our campus, including Raleigh Marshall, class of 2005. Moreover, just this past January, our university welcomed Dr. Brittney Cooper, author of Eloquent Rage and Professor of Gender Studies and Africana Studies from Rutger’s University. Dr. Cooper’s appearance and talk inspired multiple reactions, but also evoked a real sense of the lack of representation for women of color on our campus. One JMU Senior reflects on Cooper’s talk here and thanks Cooper for her boldness and willingness to speak into being what is often left unsaid in academia. After hearing Cooper speak, another JMU Senior reflected on how few professors of color she has encountered in her 4 years as a duke. As both student accounts suggest, Dr. Brittney Cooper’s appearance on our campus signals both an opportunity and an exigency for change.

As we consider the question of Character, I believe we can find great strength in pointing to the notion of becoming, and recognizing the obligation we as an institution have to become. The actions we take, the residence halls we name, the scholars we bring to campus, will all speak to the depth and breadth of our character on the path of becoming. Like James Madison and Paul Jennings, the character of our institution cannot be neatly or simply defined. However, we have a window of opportunity in this becoming to envision our ideal self, and begin to walk the path that lay ahead.

To engage with another student perspective on the naming of Paul Jennings Hall, click here.

References can be found by clicking on the hyperlinked text throughout this post.

If you haven’t already, visit the JMU Through Living Color Exhibit in Roop Hall 208, open now through April 5th. This installation highlights the lived experiences of black students on campus and the work that lies ahead in fostering a spirit of inclusion and access for all of our students. 

Photo Title: South View of Montpelier
Artist: Ron Cogswell via Flickr
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1 Response to Becoming Our Ideal Self: Paul Jennings Hall

  1. kara says:

    Well done. Very well done. Excellent writing and the perfect topic with a nuanced approach. Thank you for an enlightening read and points to consider.

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