Illustration of White House

Enslaved at the White House

Paul Jennings, enslaved by James and Dolly Madison, bought his freedom and published a personal memoir in 1865.

Photograph of Paul Jennings

Paul Jennings

Paul Jennings and James Madison

Photograph of Paul Jennings

Paul Jennings

Born in 1799, Paul Jennings was enslaved by President James Madison and his wife Dolley at Montpelier and in Washington, D.C. In his 1865 memoir, A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison, Jennings detailed his experiences while enslaved at the White House. He documented the burning of Washington when British forces set fire to the White House and other buildings throughout the city during the War of 1812. In 1847, Jennings arranged to be sold to and purchase his freedom from Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster for $120, working for a wage of $8 per month. His wife, Fanny Gordon, and their children were enslaved in Orange, Virginia, near Montpelier. Jennings married three times. He established his family in Washington and owned property near the White House and in Georgetown.

Illustration of Sixth Street Wharf

Sixth Street Wharf in Washington, D.C.

The Pearl Incident

Illustration of Sixth Street Wharf

Sixth Street Wharf in Washington, D.C.

One year after purchasing his freedom, Jennings and other free Black men, including Daniel Bell and Samuel Edmundson, planned the escape of over 70 enslaved men, women, and children from Washington, D.C., in what came to be known as the Pearl Incident. On April 15, 1848, freedom seekers boarded the schooner Pearl, docked at a wharf in Southwest Washington, and set sail down the Potomac River. Captain Daniel Drayton planned to sail into Chesapeake Bay and up the Delaware River to New Jersey, but strong headwinds slowed the voyage and the group was captured near Lookout Point, Maryland.

Photograph of descendants of Paul Jennings at James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia

Jennings Descendants at Montpelier

A Lasting Legacy

Photograph of descendants of Paul Jennings at James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia

Jennings Descendants at Montpelier

Though Fanny died in 1844, Jennings reunited with his children in the 1850s and purchased two homes in Washington, D.C. He lived at 1804 L Street NW with his second wife, Desdemona, while his daughter, Frances, lived next door with her sons. Jennings also purchased property in the Black enclave of Georgetown. The home remains part of his legacy, maintained by his descendants. Paul Jennings remained a prominent member of D.C.’s Black community until his death in 1874.

Read More Lesser Known Stories

The First African American Physician

James McCune Smith, the first African American to hold a medical degree, fought against the false scientific claims of Black inferiority.

Preacher Jarena Lee: Praise in the Meantime

Jarena Lee experienced both the intense religiosity of the late 1700s and discrimination against women as she sought to become a preacher.

The Man Behind Tennessee Whiskey

Nathan “Nearest” Green was the first known Black master distiller and creator of the blueprint behind Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey.

Crossing the Color Line to Freedom

William and Ellen Craft, fugitives from slavery, devised a cunning plan that crossed race, gender, and class lines.

An African American Venturer

"Free" Frank McWorter, founded New Philadelphia, Illinois, the first known town to be founded and platted by an African American.

The Water Spirit Will Take Us Home

The mass suicide by captive Africans at Igbo Landing marks one of the most significant acts of resistance by enslaved people.

The First African American Physician

James McCune Smith, the first African American to hold a medical degree, fought against the false scientific claims of Black inferiority.

Preacher Jarena Lee: Praise in the Meantime

Jarena Lee experienced both the intense religiosity of the late 1700s and discrimination against women as she sought to become a preacher.

The Man Behind Tennessee Whiskey

Nathan “Nearest” Green was the first known Black master distiller and creator of the blueprint behind Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey.

Crossing the Color Line to Freedom

William and Ellen Craft, fugitives from slavery, devised a cunning plan that crossed race, gender, and class lines.

An African American Venturer

"Free" Frank McWorter, founded New Philadelphia, Illinois, the first known town to be founded and platted by an African American.

The Water Spirit Will Take Us Home

The mass suicide by captive Africans at Igbo Landing marks one of the most significant acts of resistance by enslaved people.