One of the most grievous aspects of slavery was that it stripped human beings of their own stories. Regular records weren’t kept on enslaved individuals’ births, deaths, or marriages with nearly the regularity as those of white Americans, and the discouragement or prevention of literacy among slaves (in many cases, it was even illegal to teach a slave to read) meant that far fewer letters or other written documents remain today to give us insight.
Paul Jennings, an enslaved African American who served the Madison family both at Montpelier and in Washington, D.C., made the incredible journey from slavery to freedom to memoirist. His brief volume, entitled A Colored Man's Reminiscences of James Madison, is considered the first memoir about life at the White House. It’s also a rich firsthand account of the relationship between slave and slaveholder—even more valuable for its insight into a system that was at odds with its perpetrators’ values.