ORANGE, Va. (WRIC) — The Montpelier Foundation, which oversees James Madison’s home in Orange County, has fulfilled a promise made years ago to the descendants of those who were enslaved there, granting them equal representation on the foundation’s board.
The move comes after months of conflict with the Montpelier Descendants Committee (MDC), which represents the community of descendants of those enslaved at Montpelier and other plantations in the area.
The Roots of Conflict
In June 2021, the foundation voted to officially recognize the MDC as the sole representative of the descendants community, promising that they would split control of Montpelier with them by allowing the organization to nominate exactly half of the foundation’s board.
The move drew the support of the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP), which owns Montpelier and entrusts its management to the foundation.
But less than a year later, in March 2022, the foundation reneged on their promise, passing a new set of bylaws that promised to “consider any recommendations of the Montpelier Descendants Committee” — reserving the right to choose how many of their picks would actually make it onto the board.
That decision provoked a backlash from the MDC, the NTHP and staff members within the foundation itself. Those staff members signed a joint statement — which claimed to represent the views of a majority of full-time staff members — calling on the board to honor their original commitment.
In April, three of those staff members, who had been vocal in their opposition to the board’s actions, were unceremoniously fired, a move that they said “defiled archaeological ethics and museum best practices by endangering the data and research of the site.”
Those firings were condemned by the NTHP, which said they were no longer certain “whether a resolution is possible under the current leadership of the Foundation.”
Now, the Montpelier Foundation is once again seeking compromise with the MDC. The foundation’s board voted on May 16 to approve a slate of 11 board candidates from 20 nominees submitted by the MDC.
The board will now be evenly split between existing board members and MDC nominees — a key point in the board’s original agreement from 2021.
In a statement issued after the board meeting, a representative said the foundation “achieved its long-sought goal of parity on the Board for descendants of Montpelier’s formerly enslaved population.” The representative also said that it had been a “long and not always easy process,” but said the new appointees were “incredibly gifted and renowned.”
Former Board Chair Gene Hickock, who during his tenure alluded to a “takeover of the Foundation” by the MDC and NTHP, said he wished the board “every success in moving ahead.” Hickock stepped down as chair during the May 16 meeting, vacating a position he has held for four terms.
Both the descendants committee and the NTHP celebrated the move. The NTHP wrote that the move signaled an “end of this period of conflict and the restoration of Montpelier’s reputation.”
One of the board’s new members is Reverend Cornell William Brooks, a Harvard professor and former president of the NAACP.
“As our nation grapples with and even grieves over the racial injustices of this day, the work of the Montpelier Foundation is all the more important,” Brooks said. “Teaching the lessons of the living legacy of President James Madison, studying the past and possibilities of our Constitution, and sharing across our Republic and beyond the ongoing story of those enslaved at Montpelier.”
Representatives of the foundation did not respond when 8News requested an update on the status of the three staff members fired in April, but the MDC signaled that they would support “an ambitious plan of recovery” including “rehiring staff, regaining the trust of donors and partners, and restarting stalled programs.”