As we reach the end of Black History Month, I wanted to share the story of Paul Jennings, whose life provides interesting insight into the issues of slavery and life in the United States in the 1800s, including connections to some famous figures in American history.
I had never heard of Jennings until we encountered him on a Nerd Trip to Montpelier, home to our fourth president James Madison.
Jennings was a slave who served as Madison’s personal assistant during the White House years and afterward. Jennings is a fascinating witness to history, writing the first White House memoir, called “A Colored Man’s Reminiscence of James Madison,” published in 1865. I bought a copy at the Montpelier gift shop.
Jennings is credited with helping to save the famous Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington when the British burned the White House in the war of 1812. (We just saw the original of the “Landsdowne” portrait on a Nerd Trip to the National Portrait Gallery, and I wrote about this images in two recent posts, Feb 22 and Feb 26, 2012. A copy of the painting hangs in the East Room of the White House, and there are many other copies around the country).
Jennings was eventually able to get his freedom, with some help from the famed Daniel Webster. Jennings also worked for President Polk, and Jennings’ sons went on to fight for the Union army in the Civil War.
While researching this post, I learned of a 2012 book on Jennings called “A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons,” by Elizabeth Dowling Taylor. As part of the book promotion, there is a website with information about Jennings. The author even appeared on the Daily Show to promote it. I will need to add this book to my reading list.