James Madison University Administration announced on February 8, 2019 that they will be naming the newest residence hall after Paul Jennings, a former slave of James Madison. This is a huge step in the right direction for our predominantly white institution. We are making strides in ending the long-standing and problematic tradition of white-washing our history.
Attempting to erase the dark parts of this nation’s history is disrespectful, to say the least. We cannot change history by ignoring it and we definitely can’t change our future by ignoring our history. Praising our founding fathers unconditionally and excusing actions like owning enslaved human beings excuses racism today. Naming the dorm after Paul Jennings acknowledges the real history of James Madison as well as highlights the historical contributions he made, such as writing the first memoir of life inside the White House, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison. In the memoir, he defies historical claims that Dolley Madison saved a portrait of George Washington from the 1814 fire, which was the only item left from before the war of 1812.
President Alger said in a statement “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. As we continue to recognize Madison’s pivotal role in the founding of our country, . . . we must also confront as an institution that Madison profited from the ownership of slaves.”
JMU has had its fair share of issues with diversity. According to Fall 2016 enrollment statistics, we are over 75% white. We’ve had many initiatives for diversity, such as the creation of the Diversity Committee of Student Government Association in 2017 and the continuing growth of our Center for Multicultural Student Services. Of course, there’s still a great deal of work to be done.