ORANGE, Va. (WRIC) — Several senior staff members at Montpelier, the historic home of founding father James Madison, have been fired after a public conflict over representation for the descendants of those enslaved there.
The Montpelier Foundation, which governs the historic site in Orange County, voted in 2021 to allow the Montpelier Descendant’s Committee (MDC), a group that represents the descendants of people enslaved at plantations across Central Virginia, to nominate half of the foundation’s board members, effectively sharing control of Montpelier with them.
However, in March the foundation reversed course, revoking the MDC’s role as a co-equal partner. That move prompted backlash from several national organizations and Montpelier’s own senior staff, culminating in the firing of several staff members on April 18.
In June 2021, the Montpelier Foundation voted to allow the MDC to nominate half of its board members, effectively committing to allow the MDC to be an equal partner in governing the site.
“This historic decision means that for the first time, the descendants of enslaved persons at a major national historic site will be co-equals in sharing governing power and responsibility for the very site that enslaved their ancestors,” wrote Gene Hickok, chair of the board of directors, in a press release following the decision
The agreement to share governance with the MDC was heavily publicized on Montpelier’s website and in the press. It also drew support from the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP), which owns Montpelier and is the parent organization of the Montpelier Foundation.
“The National Trust strongly supported this proposal, and we worked with both parties over the past year to achieve this new level of partnership,” wrote Paul W. Edmondson, president of the NTHP.
Less than a year later, on March 25, 2022, the foundation reversed course, voting on new bylaws that would allow the MDC to continue nominating board members, but not require the foundation to seat them.
Instead, the foundation promised to “consider any recommendations of the Montpelier Descendants Committee,” but reserved the right to make their own nominations designed to represent the descendants of enslaved people, independent of the MDC.
A letter from the NTHP, addressed to chair Gene Hickock and the Montpelier Foundation’s board and sent ahead of the board’s vote, warned that the change in bylaws would “irretrievably damage the relationship” between Montpelier and the MDC.
The letter, signed by Edmondson, goes on to acknowledge apparent difficulties the foundation and MDC were having in reaching an agreement but said it was “far too soon for the Foundation to give up on the worthy commitments it made only last June.”
That letter was dated March 24. The next day, the board voted to adopt the bylaws, despite the National Trust and the Descendant’s Committee concerns.
James French, the chairman of the Descendant’s Committee and a board member of the Montpelier Foundation, denounced the move.
“We’ve been used as a prop in a public performance to gain attention and money, while behind the scenes descendants and staff with whom we work well have been subject to racial animus and massive resistance,” French said.
In a press release following the vote, board chair Gene Hickok claimed the change would actually expand representation for descendants of enslaved people on the board.
“There has been some misunderstanding about the purpose of the board’s vote,” said Hickok. “It is, in fact, a way to ensure that more voices of descendants of enslaved persons are heard in the telling of the history of Montpelier.”
After the vote, a statement was released by a group claiming to represent a majority of full-time staff at Montpelier calling for the board to “provide ‘at least equal representation’ on the Board to the MDC.”
The statement also claims that staff members were prevented by leadership from collaborating with the MDC. According to the group of staff, the board has stalled several projects, even some for which funding was already secured, and threatened staff with retaliation for working with the MDC.
Now, several senior staff members say they’ve lost their jobs in retaliation for speaking out. Chief Curator Dr. Elizabeth Chew, Director of Archaeology Dr. Matthew Reeves and Director of Communications Christy Moriarty were all fired via email on April 18.
“My colleagues and I stood up for our longtime partners in the Montpelier Descendants Committee, just as they have always encouraged and valued us,” said Dr. Chew. “I do not regret taking this stand.”
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has condemned the firings, calling into question the Montpelier Foundation’s fitness to lead.
“The National Trust has been working to achieve a resolution to the very public dispute between the Foundation and the Montpelier Descendants Committee,” the organization wrote. “But these and other recent actions by the Foundation lead us to question whether a resolution is possible under the current leadership of the Foundation.”
In response, Board Chair Gene Hickok issued a press release claiming the MDC worked “relentlessly for months to create dissension and division among the staff of James Madison’s Montpelier.”
“Actions taken this week were for repeated and disruptive violations of our employment policies,” Hickok said. “Individuals who have played a role in these developments have been either terminated or disciplined.”
Hickok added that he was still committed to promoting representation on the board for descendants of those enslaved in Orange County, adding that the MDC and National Trust were welcome to take part “if their real goal is parity and not a takeover of the Foundation.”