Statement on the Recent Conflict Between The Montpelier Foundation and The Montpelier Descendants Committee
The Montpelier Foundation, the National Trust’s co-stewardship partner at Montpelier, has a decades-long record of working with the descendants of people who were enslaved by the Madison family at Montpelier. Last year, The Foundation committed to the concept of “structural parity” with the descendants who had formally organized as the Montpelier Descendants Committee. Through this commitment, the Montpelier Foundation agreed that the Montpelier Descendants Committee would be the sole representative organization of the Montpelier descendant community.
The National Trust has been strongly supportive of this work, which aligns with 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, created at Montpelier in 2018 in collaboration with and funded by the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. To institutionalize this commitment to “structural parity,” the Montpelier Foundation’s board of directors amended the organization’s bylaws in June 2021 to provide that the Foundation would maintain a goal to have at least one-half of the directors to be recommended or endorsed by the Montpelier Descendants Committee.
In the nine months following that commitment, however, the leadership at the Foundation and the leadership of the Montpelier Descendants Committee have been unable to reach agreement regarding implementation of the concepts that were reflected in the June 2021 bylaws, despite the National Trust’s efforts to bring the parties to the table with the help of facilitators paid for by the National Trust.
On Friday, March 25, at a special meeting of the Board, a majority of the Foundation’s directors voted to amend their bylaws again, this time to rescind the role given to the Montpelier Descendants Committee under the Foundation’s bylaws last June. The National Trust’s ex officio representative on the Foundation’s board, General Counsel Tom Mayes, voted against the proposal, as did two members of the board who are members of the Montpelier Descendants Committee. Prior to the meeting, National Trust President Paul Edmondson issued a letter, strongly urging that the Board not take this step, which in our view would likely irretrievably damage the Foundation’s relationship with the Montpelier Descendants Committee, as well as Montpelier’s longstanding partnership with the descendant community.
Our opposition—as well as that of members of the Montpelier Descendants Committee and a number of staff members at Montpelier—was reported in an article by The Washington Post published on March 25 in advance of the Montpelier Foundation board meeting. (View an updated version of the article here: James Madison’s Montpelier strips power from enslaved descendants group - The Washington Post). While the National Trust was not contacted by the Washington Post, Paul Edmondson’s letter was referenced and quoted in the article.
We are deeply disappointed by the outcome of the board meeting and we will continue to encourage The Montpelier Foundation and the Montpelier Descendants Committee to work together to implement the goal of structural parity at Montpelier. We have consistently supported this idea and will continue to do so.
We believe in the power of historic places like Montpelier, their importance in our public consciousness and all that they have to teach us.