Descendant Of White House Slave Shares Legacy

In 1814, Paul Jennings, a slave in President James Madison's White House, helped rescue George Washington's portrait from the White House before it was burned down by the British. Hugh Alexander, his great-great grandson, calls the legacy "awe-inspiring."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

At the White House today, an unprecedented visit. Dozens of descendants of a former slave who served at the White House were given a tour. Their ancestor, Paul Jennings, was just 10 years old when he came to the White House as a footman to President James Madison. It was 1809.

Jennings was also at the White House in 1814, escaping just before British soldiers arrived to burn it down. And years later, he was at President Madison's side when he died.

Hugh Alexander is a great-great-grandson of Paul Jennings. He joins us from the White House.

Mr. Alexander, welcome to the program.

Mr. HUGH ALEXANDER: Hello there.

BLOCK: And how much are you thinking about the weight of history there at the White House, thinking about your great-great-grandfather working as a slave where you are right now?

Mr. ALEXANDER: It's really pretty amazing. It's awe-inspiring, I guess. Maybe that's used too much, but it's really an amazing day.

BLOCK: And of course, knowing that there's now an African American president in the White House, where your ancestor, who was a slave, worked.

Mr. ALEXANDER: That even amplifies the importance.

BLOCK: Well, what was the most meaningful moment of your tour today?

Mr. ALEXANDER: To actually see the painting of George Washington that my great-great-grandfather played a part in saving. That painting means so much as being one of the key artifacts that's left over from that period. And it's just pretty amazing to actually see it close up.

BLOCK: Well, this is an interesting story. This is the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. And the story has been that Dolly Madison, when the British were coming to burn down the White House, got the painting out of its frame, spirited it away. Your ancestor, Paul Jennings, published a small memoir and he said that story is totally false. What did he say happened?

Mr. ALEXANDER: He said that the French cook and another person were instructed to take the frame apart and take the picture down from the walls so that it could be spirited away before the British came to the White House.

BLOCK: And that was 195 years ago today in the War of 1812.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Yes. And by the way, he was born in 1799, so I guess he was 15 years old when this took place.

BLOCK: Wow. Your ancestor, Paul Jennings, bought his freedom when he was 48 years old, I've read. What do you know about his life afterward as a free man?

Mr. ALEXANDER: I think that's some of the most important part of his history. Though he had been a slave, he was able to procure his own freedom. In the 1850s he was able to reunite with his three sons and his family that had been left in Virginia. And three of his sons actually served in the Civil War fighting for the freedom of the slaves.

BLOCK: Your ancestor, Paul Jennings, in the memoir that he published back in 1865, "A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison," what did you learn from reading that memoir about his relationship with President Madison, what kind of a man - what kind of men they both were?

Mr. ALEXANDER: I think that that is really - had some important lessons in it. The idea of slavery and the relationship between slaves and masters is a lot more complicated than commonplace history tries to relate it to people. I think when you read it, you see that there is some respect and I think some love that he feels for his master.

But I also am sure that being exposed to the thoughts of Mr. Madison, especially with his role in developing the Constitution, a lot of those ideas rubbed off and I think caused Paul to be the sort of person that he became.

BLOCK: As you've been walking through the White House today, what's the conversation been like among the members of your family?

Mr. ALEXANDER: Not much conversation. It's just been a lot of wows and oohs and we're really here. And when we stood in front of the painting, I saw a number of the people just stand there in silence just looking. We were able to take a family portrait in front of the painting, which was for me one of the high points.

BLOCK: This is the portrait of George Washington…

Mr. ALEXANDER: Yes.

BLOCK: …by Gilbert Stuart. That's got to be quite a picture.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Yeah, I'm waiting to see it.

BLOCK: Well, Hugh Alexander, enjoy your time at the White House today. Thanks for talking with us.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: That's Hugh Alexander, a descendent of Paul Jennings, who was a slave in President James Madison's White House.

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