Montpelier—Frequently Asked Questions

On March 25, 2022, The Montpelier Foundation, an independent organization that leases and operates Montpelier, a National Trust Historic Site in Orange, Virginia, rescinded a commitment made in June 2021 giving a special role in recommending appointments to the Foundation’s board of directors to the Montpelier Descendants Committee. The Montpelier Descendants Committee is an independent organization that is devoted to restoring the narratives of enslaved Americans at Montpelier and other plantation sites in Central Virginia. The June 2021 commitment was intended to advance the concept of “structural parity” in board governance at Montpelier. The conflict between the two organizations was reported in the Washington Post on March 25, 2022.

What exactly is the relationship between the National Trust and The Montpelier Foundation?

Montpelier is a co-stewardship site owned by the National Trust and operated by The Montpelier Foundation through a formal agreement and lease. This co-stewardship arrangement, now more than 2 decades old, was conceived to empower the site to operate independently and to have local management and governance authority. This means that the National Trust does not have authority over either management or board governance. Under this agreement, the National Trust has the right to approve certain physical changes to the property, but does not have the authority to make changes to either the board or staff of The Montpelier Foundation. The National Trust has supported the work to achieve the ideals and principles of descendant involvement and structural parity. The National Trust has paid for facilitators to work with the Montpelier Foundation and the Montpelier Descendants Committee to assist in resolving their differences. The National Trust has the right to appoint one ex officio representative on the Board of The Montpelier Foundation, a role currently held by the National Trust’s General Counsel, Tom Mayes, who opposed and voted against the bylaws change.

What is the National Trust’s stance on the current conflict at Montpelier between The Montpelier Foundation and the Montpelier Descendants Committee?

The National Trust has consistently supported and continues to support the efforts of The Montpelier Foundation and the Montpelier Descendants Committee to achieve structural parity.  We have directly underwritten this work by engaging and paying for professional facilitators and we continue to be willing to do so going forward. The National Trust has also supported both groups with grant awards from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and the Historic Sites Interpretation and Education Fund to continue their work to recognize and highlight the challenging histories of all those who resided at and around Montpelier including those held in bondage.

In a letter to The Montpelier Foundation’s Board on March 24, 2022, National Trust president Paul Edmondson had urged the Montpelier Foundation’s board to maintain its prior commitment to the Montpelier Descendants Committee. Nonetheless, as reported in the Washington Post, on March 25, 2022, the Foundation’s board proceeded to revise the organization’s bylaws once again, to rescind the role given to the Montpelier Descendants Committee. The National Trust’s one ex-officio representative on the board, National Trust General Counsel Tom Mayes, opposed and voted against the bylaws change along with two other members of the board.

What is structural parity?

Structural parity is a term used in 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 (aka the “Rubric”), which was developed collaboratively at Montpelier in 2018, in collaboration with and funded by the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust.

Achieving structural parity at a historic site at which people were held in bondage is the goal of ensuring that descendants of those individuals are represented—and empowered—at every level of the organization, from the board to the volunteers. In the case of Montpelier, in August 2020, after a negotiation facilitated by the National Trust, the Montpelier Foundation recognized the Montpelier Descendants Committee as the sole representative organization of the Montpelier descendant community. Subsequently, The Montpelier Foundation, in June 2021, changed its bylaws to advance the goal of structural parity on the Foundation’s Board of Directors by providing a process for the election of individuals recommended by the Montpelier Descendants Committee to the Foundation’s board.

What is the conflict between The Montpelier Foundation and Montpelier Descendants Committee?

The Montpelier Foundation earlier recognized the Montpelier Descendants Committee as the sole representative organization of the Montpelier descendant community and committed through the June 2021 bylaws amendment to allow the Montpelier Descendants Committee to recommend new directors who would advance the goal of structural parity. Although two new directors were chosen through this process, disputes between the two organizations have hindered their working relationship. On March 25, 2022, a majority of the Foundation’s board voted to rescind the singular representative role given to the Montpelier Descendants Committee, effectively reversing the Foundation’s prior commitment. Under the most recent amendment, the Montpelier Descendants Committee may continue to recommend names for new board members, but the Board may select other individuals of its own choosing as representatives of the descendant community.

Have the Montpelier Foundation and the Montpelier Descendants Committee worked together in the past?

Montpelier has been nationally recognized as a leader in interpreting the history of slavery and in engaging with the descendant community, as well as being a place for thoughtful examination of the Constitution and its ongoing relevance. All of this work is enhanced, strengthened, and made more broadly relevant to the public by a strong relationship between the Montpelier Foundation and the Montpelier Descendants Committee, which was created out of a collaborative process at Montpelier, following decades of work between staff and descendants at Montpelier.

What is the National Trust doing to interpret sites of enslavement and engage with descendant communities at its other sites?

The National Trust’s portfolio of 28 historic sites includes eleven places with histories of slavery. They are as far north as Newport, Rhode Island, as far west as Monterey, California, and as far south as New Iberia, Louisiana, with the biggest concentration in the mid-Atlantic: Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia, and Virginia. Since the 1990s, the National Trust has supported the interpretation of slavery at these sites by providing periodic trainings and annual grant funding to support interpretation and education projects at individual sites. However, historically, both the National Trust and the sites within our portfolio, like much of the rest of the field, have fallen short of honestly, adequately, and equitably addressing the realities and legacies of slavery in historic places. In 2018, the ground-breaking Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites Rubric was produced at Montpelier in collaboration with and supported by funding from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust.

In 2020, Elon Cook Lee, the Director of Interpretation and Education, brought Trust initiatives and site-based interpretation together by establishing SHINE (Stewarding sites of enSlaved History through INterpretation and Education.) Since its inception, this collaborative working group has identified areas for examination and experimentation, implemented best practices, reconsidered plantation weddings and other celebratory events, embraced ethical and equitable descendent engagement and explored best practices in the areas of recruiting and retaining diverse staff. In addition, the group also engages in discussing broader questions of interpretation and equity, including how the long legacy of slavery impacts historic sites today, and how to more adequately explore and see whiteness. Each SHINE initiative centers on the foundational pillars and core learnings of the Engaging Descendant Communities Rubric. This invaluable tool not only gives a framework in which the group can work, but sites also evaluate themselves using the rubric semi-annually to track their individual improvements and chart new goals.

SHINE sites are diverse geographically and architecturally and their achievements and challenges are equally complex. Some sites have been collaborating with organized nonprofit descendants of slavery groups for many years or even decades, others have started by welcoming descendants onto their boards or advisory councils or engaging them to assist with research. Several have more recently begun descendant engagement initiatives with the support of grants. Equitable and ethical community engagement work is challenging for any institution, but it can be all the more difficult when the site has a history of racial violence, oppression, and exclusion. These historical truths echo in the present as few or none of the permanent full-time staff at these historic sites are descended from victims of that history. Nevertheless, SHINE participants, using the Rubric, seek to address historical and contemporary inequities and grow in the best practices of interpretation with each convening, and, more importantly, through dedicated work between sessions.

In 2021 SHINE inspired the creation of RISE (Reinterpreting International Sites of Enslavement) a cross-Atlantic collaboration with the International Trusts Organization (INTO) that brings National Trust sites together with Trustees of Reservations, National Parks Service, and historic sites with histories of slavery in the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. This international group meets throughout the year to explore, exchange ideas and support each other in the pursuit of best practices in the interpretation of slavery and site stewardship.

The work being done at sites of enslavement, both with RISE and SHINE, is about using the lessons of the past to move forward into a more equitable future. This is what some have termed “repair work”. Researching painful histories, building relationships and creating more accurate portrayals of the past is not easy and cannot be done quickly. But, like the National Trust’s Black Lives Matter statement reminds us, this must be done with a sense of urgency. For those interpreters engaging with the history of slavery in the rooms and landscapes where it happened, it is labor. It is mental, physical and often emotional labor. For those engaging with descendants, it can take years, even decades, to create equitable relationships built on trust, after generations of exclusion. We steward houses, plantations, spaces and places that are sites of trauma—not only with regard to the periods of slavery, but the trauma of its legacies. And so, while this briefly covers the work in which the National Trust has and is currently engaging, it is by no means complete and it is work to which we are deeply committed in perpetuity.

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