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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: August 24, 2009
Byline: Kristin E. Holmes

Descendants of Madison's slave to tour White House

Five generations separate Elsie Styles-Harrison of Malvern and the ancestor who served as a slave in the White House.

In the years between them, Paul Jennings, the property of President James Madison, became the subject of a passing reference. He had something to do with an attempted slave escape, an aunt mentioned to Styles-Harrison decades ago.

It wasn't until she got her first computer that Styles-Harrison discovered the historic importance of her great-great-great-grandfather.

Jennings, she learned, is credited with writing the first documented memoir of an insider living in the White House. And he was likely among those who saved the portrait of George Washington during the War of 1812.

Today, Styles-Harrison and dozens of Jennings descendants will tour the White House, where they will view the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington.

"We are living in a day when we have a black president in the White House," said Styles-Harrison, 79, a retired administrative assistant and former Philadelphia police officer. "And it's the result of all the unsung work of the heroes who came before him."

Nearly two centuries ago, Styles-Harrison's ancestor walked into the White House as a 10-year-old slave. Born in 1799 at Montpelier, the Madison family plantation, Jennings was the son of an English trader and a slave woman who was part American Indian. Jennings was a footman, serving dinner, aiding the coachman, and acting as a messenger, said Beth Taylor, director of education at Montpelier, who is writing a book about Jennings.

"When you came onto [Montpelier] during Madison's time, you would see five white faces and about 100 black faces," Taylor said. "We know a lot about the white people who lived here but very little about the black people. We want to tell the authentic history."

Taylor organized today's White House tour. President Obama and his family are away on vacation.

Efforts such as Taylor's book and the President's House project on Independence Mall are part of a growing movement to include the lives of slaves in "the public narrative," said historian Michael R. Winston, emeritus vice president for academic affairs at Howard University. This would add to earlier works pioneered by black scholars, said Winston, who has written about Jennings for the White House Historical Association.

"We are in some ways reaching a point where the difficult parts of our history are being approached," he said, "and that's a good thing."

Lisa Collins, Styles-Harrison's daughter, called it a sign that people — black and white — are now able to get beyond the shame of having slavery in their family tree.

In 1865, Jennings' account of his life as a slave was published. A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison gave a glimpse into the White House.

Jennings warmly discussed his masters. He recounted being with Madison when the former president was dying. He wrote of giving Dolley Madison a few "sums from my own pocket" when she was poverty-stricken after her husband's death. By then, Jennings had purchased his freedom with the help of Daniel Webster.

The memoir also recounted the scurry of activity in the White House as the British approached Washington after winning the Battle of Bladensburg. They captured the city and set many public buildings on fire, including the White House. But before they arrived, Jennings was among those who helped spirit away the portrait of Washington, which still hangs in the White House, Taylor said.

Dolley Madison is given most of the credit, although Jennings wrote that she hadn't taken down the portrait. He credited other servants for taking it down, but historians say Dolley Madison instructed her servants to do it.

Once a free man, Jennings built a life for himself and his wife, Fanny. They had five children.

In 1848, Jennings secretly helped organize an attempted escape of more than 70 slaves from Washington on a boat called the Pearl. An informant foiled the plan. The slaves were returned to their masters, and many were sold away.

"I feel like he was fighting back then, and I'm living in the times he fought for," said William McNally, 22, Styles-Harrison's grandson. "I'm so proud of it."

Jennings went on to work in a job with the federal government, and purchased two homes in Washington. He died in 1874.

Members of the Jennings family met for a reunion this year at Montpelier. Styles-Harrison walked into a cellar where plantation artifacts were displayed. There, she saw pieces of a yellow mixing bowl identical to one that had been handed down to her.

"I almost fell out on the floor," Styles-Harrison said.

Today she, along with Collins, will walk the halls of the White House with her family to view the portrait that her ancestor helped preserve.

The date is significant. The life-size depiction of Washington was saved from the British on Aug. 24, 1814.

 

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