Madison's Montpelier Board Strips Power from Enslaved Descendants' GroupBreaking News
tags: slavery, historic preservation, James Madison, Montpelier, public history
James Madison’s Montpelier estate drew national attention last year when the board that manages the historic home announced plans to share authority equally with descendants of people who were once enslaved there.
But that unique arrangement appeared in tatters Friday afternoon as the board voted to strip power-sharing status from the Montpelier Descendants Committee, a group representing African Americans who trace their roots to the community.
The vote caps at least two years of rising tensions between the board and the committee, even as Montpelier’s reputation has grown as a pioneer in empowering groups who were traditionally marginalized by the telling of history.
“It is a complete reversal of their public commitment that was made on June 16, 2021,” said James French, head of the committee and a member of the Montpelier Foundation’s board. “It’s a rejection of the principle of equality of descendant voices and it’s very unfortunate, because it is a missed opportunity for Montpelier to make history.”
Five descendants of enslaved people serve on the board, three chosen by the committee and two by the foundation. The change in bylaws approved Friday strips the committee of its ability to name future members, giving the foundation more control over the makeup of the board.
Foundation chairman Gene Hickok said in an interview that the change is not an effort to back away from the commitment to fully represent descendants on the board, a concept called structural parity. Instead, he said, the board has found the committee difficult to work with and wants the ability to choose descendant members from a wider pool.
“This is an effort to reset the process,” Hickok said. “It certainly doesn’t have the board backing away from parity. We are very committed to parity. The challenge has been organizationally getting there.”
The conflict and the proposed bylaws change have outraged many staffers who work at the estate, including curators, historians and archaeologists. They say the committee of descendants has been an integral partner in interpreting the complicated history of Madison, his family and the roughly 300 enslaved people who lived and died there over the span of 140 years.
A majority of the site’s roughly 40 full-time employees wrote an unsigned resolution urging the board not to approve the change. “We request” the Montpelier Foundation “respect its well-publicized commitment to immediately implement its bylaws and provide ‘at least equal representation’ on the board to” the committee, they wrote before the vote.