Two weeks ago, an exhibit in Paul Jennings Hall opened to the public for viewing. The exhibit, located in the lobby, can be viewed during the hours of 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday.
The public hours are intended by the Office of Residence Life to encourage students and others in the JMU and Harrisonburg community to enjoy the exhibit, Kevin Meaney, director of residence life, said. The exhibit, which consists of a large, three-paneled informational wall as well as quotes and images scattered throughout the first floor of Jennings Hall, showcases the history of Paul Jennings, a former slave of James Madison, as well as his descendants and those enslaved at Montpelier.
“We took the name, and we brought it to different pockets of the community before we finalized it,” Meaney said. “A consistent piece of feedback was that we’d be really ashamed if we named this building, designed this exhibit and then, it was locked away behind a residence hall.”
The JMU Board of Visitors approved the name "Paul Jennings Hall" for the new East Campus dorm and went over various topics during its Feb. 8 meeting.
Meaney said ORL wanted to honor this request from the community, so they devised a way to allow the public to access the lobby and exhibit during the set community hours. The lobby doors are now unlocked from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays when most residents are in class, while the residential wings will remain only accessible by JACard.
Maya Canaday, a sophomore health science and pre-pa major and resident of Paul Jennings Hall, is “not completely uncomfortable but on edge” about the idea of her residence hall being open to the public during the week. She brought up concerns that “piggybacking” will still allow entrance to the residential wings during the restricted hours.
“You have to remember, this is a community,” Canaday said. “To have things like that pass, I feel like you should also talk to the people, too.”
Security was a main concern for ORL when implementing the community hours, Meaney said, but it wanted to make sure that members of the public who are interested in the Jennings story were able to make use of the space dedicated to his history. ORL is still finding the “balance” between the hall being a residential community and an exhibit, and it hopes it can expand on the Jennings exhibit and make use of the space in other ways to promote diversity on campus, Meaney said.
Canaday, as a member of the Center for Multicultural Student Services group Women of Color, said she decided to live in Paul Jennings Hall because she felt it was important to be one of the first residents in a building that’s dedicated to Jennings’ legacy. She said she’s seen multiple students walk by the Jennings exhibit and stop to read the words displayed and has personally brought visitors who asked to see the exhibit.
“It makes people think, ‘It’s not just a sign that says Paul Jennings Hall,’” Canaday said. “It’s a hall dedicated to Paul Jennings, but you also get to know who he is and what impact he had.”
JMU alumna Brittany Butler (’06) owns the graphic design firm that created the exhibit in collaboration with JMU, Montpelier and the information provided by the Jennings family. Butler said she was proud to be a graduate of JMU after she saw how “invested” the school was in the project to honor Jennings’ legacy.
“I think they’re one of the first universities to name a residence hall or other building after an enslaved person, and by their choice,” Butler said. “So that was really impressive, that they’re addressing that and are acknowledging all parts of the community and history of James Madison and Montpelier.”
Jennings Hall had its official grand opening ceremony Oct. 13.
For many members of CMSS and Women of Color, Canaday said, the decision to name the new hall after Paul Jennings was “controversial” and a potentially glorifying way to speak about slavery, a situation with “no positive.” Canaday said she appreciates that the exhibit isn’t simply a short biography and a picture of Jennings, but a good design that “people stop to read.”
“Someone does want to take the time, not only to dedicate a building to someone but to elaborate and make sure people know who [Jennings] is and his ambitions even though he was so restrained,” Canaday said. “So for me, I think it’s just another stepping stone for the university to be that well-rounded place that we always try to be in.”
Butler said that while designing the exhibit’s layout, it was important to her and her collaborators to make the story of Paul Jennings “relatable” to the modern audience. She said she hopes that viewers of the exhibit can understand that Jennings’ story wasn’t the standard experience of an enslaved person but that he created an opportunity for himself and his descendants through education and buying his own freedom.
Butler said the most rewarding part of the process of designing the exhibit for her was when she saw the descendants of Jennings at the opening ceremony. She said she was proud of the leadership of JMU and Montpelier for understanding the importance of Jennings’ story and of “telling it correctly.”
“I think how grateful they were for the recognition that JMU provided Paul Jennings and telling his story, and telling their story, was really rewarding at the end of the project,” Butler said. “Something that had been ignored in the past was brought to light and celebrated.”
Contact Jamie McEachin at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.