On June 16, the Montpelier Foundation (TMF) board of directors voted to approve bylaws that equally share the governance of the Montpelier estate with the Montpelier Descendants Committee (MDC).
According to a press release from the foundation, the reorganization of leadership is the first of its kind for a historic site of Montpelier’s prominence.
The TMF board previously passed a resolution on May 27 which stated, “The Board of The Montpelier Foundation affirms its commitment to collaborate with the Montpelier Descendants Committee (MDC) to achieve structural parity with descendants at all levels of the organization.”
“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,” said Gene Hickok, chair of the board of directors of TMF.
Paul W. Edmondson, the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP), voiced his ardent approval of the change. Marion duPont Scott, the last private owner of Montpelier, entrusted the estate to the NTHP in 1983.
“By this action, the Montpelier board of directors and MDC have shown critical leadership in creating equitable governance of a site that is not only the ancestral home of James Madison, but also of hundreds of people enslaved by the Madison family,” Edmundson said. “The National Trust strongly supported this proposal, and we worked with both parties over the past year to achieve this new level of partnership.
“We commend both The Montpelier Foundation and the Montpelier Descendants Committee for working together to achieve this breakthrough,” he added.
The MDC was established during the week leading up to Juneteenth (June 19) in 2019. James French has served as the committee’s founding chair and president since its inception. French is a descendant of enslaved people that lived on the plantations owned by James Barbour (the 18th governor of Virginia) and James Newman. Both plantations abutted the Montpelier estate.
“I’ve been on the TMF board since a few weeks after the creation of the MDC, two years ago this June,” French said. “The committee was created at a gathering of descendants at Montpelier. We decided that we wanted to create an organization to represent the independent voices and interests of the descendant community.”
The committee is based on the principles of a rubric entitled “Engaging Descendant Communities In the Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites: A Rubric of Best Practices Established by the National Summit on Teaching Slavery.” The 27-page document was written and published in 2018 following a summit convened by Montpelier that drew from the ideas and expertise of historians and scholars from across the Commonwealth and mid-Atlantic region.
“The rubric is a set of guidelines and principles to suggest ways of interacting and evaluating the relationship between an institution or historical site such as Montpelier and the descendant community,” French said.
French explained that he and TMF president and CEO, Roy Young, have been using the rubric as a road map to a better understanding of what they like to call Montpelier’s “whole-truth history.”
“We made sure that the MDC was an independent organization from the start, so that it would be authentic and have the maximum impact,” French said. “Shortly after the formation of the committee, I was invited by Roy’s predecessor (Kat Imhoff) to join the Montpelier foundation’s board of directors.”
Although the journey to reach the current power-sharing agreement has been a long and winding one, Young believes that the partnership will only strengthen the efforts to tell the full history of Montpelier.
“The first step is the acknowledgement that the history exists and that we’re no longer going to erase it. Then there’s this need to tell the history. Yet, you can only tell the history through the staff members that are here to interpret it. Therefore, we started engaging descendants to see who was interested in doing this work with us.”
Young also emphasized the pioneering and groundbreaking aspects of the leadership reorganization and pointed to the fact that it could set a new standard among national historic sites.
“Truly, I believe that we are ahead of other historic sites, who are still back in what I mentioned before, which is having descendants involved in an advisory capacity,” he said. “We are now making a formal commitment through a board resolution and change in bylaws that at all levels of the organization we will create parity with the descendants. No more, ‘you’re sort of important, or I’d like to have your help.’ But truly standing shoulder to shoulder with each other representing ‘whole truth history’ from both perspectives.”
French said part of the challenge of fostering true parity at Montpelier was moving away from the symbolic gestures historic sites and organizations have issued in the past. The TMF and MDC were looking to do something much more substantial and tangible.
“Historically, not just at Montpelier, but at the vast majority of sites, descendant engagement has been uneven, compartmentalized and tokenized,” he said. “Descendants were kind of called upon when it was useful to the larger institution in a variety of ways. We always knew that we were not the descendants of faceless people, but of founders. The country was founded in this region and our ancestors were a part of the founding generation. They did not benefit from the recognition and were deprived of their humanity.”
A key to telling the real story of what occurred on Montpelier’s grassy hills and fields during the time it was a plantation is being honest about how many enslaved individuals actually lived there.
“For every Madison family member on the plantation, there were 24 enslaved people,” French pointed out. “There were 300 enslaved people living there for more than 120 years, which means that Madison himself grew up, and his father and grandfather before him, in essentially an African American community… It’s an important story to bring up.”
Now that the TMF board has been reconfigured and the MDC has been moved into a position of coequal power, the real work begins. Young and French laid out several big initiatives and projects on the horizon.
“Montpelier has done an excellent job of ‘ground truthing,’ of literally digging in the ground to see what happened at the plantation and on the land,” French said. “We want to expand on that, to see what made this [place] different. And you can’t do that if you shy away from the central, overwhelming presence of slavery.”
Young echoed French and emphasized the planned expansion of some of Montpelier’s archaeology and excavation projects. One of those is an overseers’ project. The overseer of a plantation is a person and occupation that is seldom studied or understood in terms of what role they played in the system of slavery, Young said.
“We have a blacksmith site that is currently being excavated,” he said. “We also have a large project that will feature summits and sessions to determine what type of memorialization the MDC would like to have here at Montpelier.”
“The [Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution] is of growing importance, not only because of the general climate of our country and the world, but as a newly reconstituted organization we can speak with greater authority about the fact that the Constitution continues to be an important document,” Young continued. “But we need to be able to study that document and to talk honestly about who it included in its creation and who it excluded. We really are looking forward to creating robust conversations and programs to get at contemporary issues like systemic racism.”
A particularly ambitious project and one that is central to the MDC’s core mission is the Arc of Enslaved Communities, or “The Arc.”
“The MDC has written a proposal for funding to create a national trail,” French said. “Imagine an arch, with the northern end in Fredericksburg and the southern end in Richmond and the curve of that shape extending all the way back to the mountains. Within that roughly 850 square-mile area was one of the most densely populated slave communities in America in the [colonial] era.”
National Historic Trails are a component of the larger National Trail System, which includes everything from the Appalachian Trail to the Oregon Trail. “The Arc” would have to be approved by Congress before it could be formally established, French said.
“So, it would be a national [historic] trail administered by the National Park Service and would follow that arch,” he said. “It would help us understand, ‘why here?” What happened here [in Virginia] that led to the creation of the country. It would, of course, cross through Montpelier. We want Montpelier to be the home for interpretation of the discoveries along this trail. So, we would have active trails for people to hike, camp and enjoy the beauty of nature, but at the same time learn history.”
Ultimately, French hopes that Montpelier’s power-sharing agreement can push back against a polarized and inflammatory approach to talking about the era of enslavement and the country’s founding and move toward discussions that value the input of all people.
“It truly is a new national model… what we are doing is confronting zero sum logic,” he said. That’s been at the core of the central misunderstanding of history. It allows the discourse to revolve around fear.”
To learn about the changes at Montpelier and upcoming initiatives or to plan a tour, visit www.montpelier.org. For more information regarding the MDC and “The Arc” proposal, visit www.montpelierdescendants.org.