But can the new residence hall coexist with other buildings on campus named after Confederate soldiers? WMRA’s Bridget Manley reports.
[Sound of construction]
On a crisp morning in Harrisonburg, construction workers are hard at work on a new residence hall that will house 500 JMU students this fall.
The enormous structure looms over the Convocation Center on the east side of campus. But it’s making news for another reason: after meeting with JMU students, the university has decided to name the building after James Madison’s enslaved personal manservant, Paul Jennings.
Jennings was born into slavery, served Madison both at Montpelier and the White House, bought his own freedom and later wrote the first memoir about life in the White House.
Dr. Tim Miller is the Vice President of Student Affairs for the University. He says the idea to name a structure after the Jennings had been talked about for a long time.
TIM MILLER: The faculty Senate has talked about it in the past, and has discussed this and tried to think about how we could sort of recognize and honor the history and legacy of Paul Jennings. So it’s been around for a while, but this sort of came out in a separate approach, we had this new residence hall, and when you build a building you have to name it. And one of the things we thought of on the residence life team was ‘why don’t we ask our students what they think?’ So we just opened it up to students, to the community really, and we asked if people had ideas.
The name of the building is part of a larger initiative on campus to create a more inclusive experience for all students, as well as to address some of the university’s racist past.
Students have been working with faculty on a diversity task force, and last year displayed an exhibit titled “Black and White on Bluestone Hill” which included photos from university yearbooks depicting blackface in Greek life and other theater productions.
Raleigh Marshall is a 2005 graduate of JMU and a descendant of Jennings. He says the family is excited to participate in helping the university in any way it can, noting that Jennings story is one of hope.
RALEIGH MARSHALL: I think there’s another potential lesson in there, and that’s one of - kind of hope. If you think about Paul Jennings’ story, you know, he was an enslaved man, until in his forties. But he was still able to, you know, become a land owner, he was still able to become a father, he was able to liberate his children eventually. I think all three of his sons actually were union soldiers, so, we put our blood on the line too.
STEVEN THOMAS: This is also part of the legacy of slavery that James Madison University must come to terms with.
Activist Steven Thomas is co-founder of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County chapter of Coming to the Table. He says that he sees the naming of the hall in honor of Jennings as a positive first step. But Thomas also points out that three buildings on campus are still named in honor of Confederate soldiers and officers, and he would like to see change there as well.
THOMAS: Maury Hall, named after a Confederate naval commander. Jackson Hall, named after a Confederate general. Jackson Hall, named after a Confederate officer. These names came about around 1917 when James Madison University’s faculty decided to rename or name some of the buildings that were being constructed on campus, after Confederate soldiers and ‘heroes’ in line with what became known as the Lost Cause narrative, and that Lost Cause narrative is one that was perpetuated throughout the South.
Miler notes that there have been discussions about renaming the three buildings, but nothing concrete has been proposed. He also argues that the new dorm and new name is a chance to make a positive change at JMU.
MILLER: Hey, this is a chance for us to really step up as an institution. And while lots of people are talking about subtraction and changing names, let’s step forward and do something additive and positive on our campus in this way and honor this person’s legacy as someone who’s not in history books.
But as Virginia’s racist history comes into greater focus with blackface scandals engulfing two of Virginia’s top politicians, it’s unlikely the discussions will end there.