The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Montpelier staffers say they were fired for backing descendants group

Visitors tour Montpelier, home of America’s fourth president, James Madison, in December in Orange County, Va. (Julia Rendleman/The Washington Post)
5 min

Several senior staff members at James Madison’s historic Montpelier estate lost their jobs Monday, in what they called retaliation for speaking out on behalf of a group of descendants of enslaved workers that has been in conflict with the board of directors.

Executive vice president and chief curator Elizabeth Chew, director of archaeology Matt Reeves and spokeswoman Christy Moriarty were all fired Monday, with another top staffer fired last week and two others suspended, according to a statement from the staffers and the descendants group.

“The work that we have done with the Montpelier Descendants Committee in the six-and-a-half years I have been at Montpelier were the thing in my professional life I’m the most proud of,” Chew said in an interview. “To lose my job over it is disappointing, to say the least.”

James Madison's Montpelier strips power from enslaved descendants group

The groups charged that Montpelier’s president, Roy Young, was punishing the staffers for publicly opposing the board’s vote at the end of March to strip power from the Montpelier Descendants Committee (MDC), a nonprofit formed as the official representative of the families of former enslaved workers.

“After making repeated public statements that the Foundation would not retaliate against staff for opposing the Board’s abandonment of its commitment, Young has reneged,” the MDC said in its announcement, released by the law firm Cultural Heritage Partners.

Young did not respond to voice and email messages Monday. In an interview Friday, he responded to a question about potential firings by saying he could not talk about personnel decisions. A call to the press office at Montpelier went to Moriarty’s voice mail.

Reeves, who worked for 23 years at Montpelier as director of archaeology, said he and other staff members were outraged by the firings on Monday.

Reeves said he received an email Monday morning stating he was terminated.

“It blew me away,” Reeves told The Washington Post. “To fire me today shows they have no interest in moving forward with this work to tell whole-truth history.” He added, “They are looking to cleanse Montpelier of anything that goes beyond their message, or any narrative that critiques Madison. It is unfortunate. It is taking Montpelier back in time.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which owns the property that the Montpelier Foundation manages, praised Chew and Reeves in particular for “groundbreaking” efforts to tell history in collaboration with the descendant community.

“The National Trust strongly condemns these actions against highly regarded and nationally recognized professionals, which will impede the effective stewardship of Montpelier and diminish important public programming at this highly significant historic site,” the National Trust said in a statement.

The organization added that while it has worked to resolve issues between the board and the descendants committee, “these and other recent actions by the Foundation lead us to question whether a resolution is possible under the current leadership of the Foundation.”

Montpelier had been the toast of the historic-preservation world after launching an innovative effort in 2018 to give equal voice to the descendants of enslaved workers. Some 300 people were enslaved over a 140-year period at Montpelier, the Orange County, Va., estate of Madison, who was the fourth U.S. president and father of the Constitution.

Last year, Montpelier’s foundation announced it would seek “structural parity” with the MDC — meaning equal representation on the board of directors, which is authorized to number up to 25 members.

Some push back as plantations talk more honestly about slavery

The decision attracted widespread praise as an example for all historical institutions. But the board struggled to see it through. Of today’s 16 members, five are descended from enslaved workers; three of those were named by the committee, two by the foundation.

Last month, citing difficult relationships, the board’s chairman, Gene Hickok, led it to support a resolution to strip the MDC of its official status. Hickok said the board would still seek an equal number of Black members but would make its own determination of who qualifies.

In an interview before the vote, Hickok said he remained committed to telling the full history of Montpelier but that the board needed to maintain control.

Chew and Reeves were among some 40 Montpelier staffers who presented a petition opposing the step, which the National Trust also opposed. Since then, more than 6,500 people have signed a petition voicing support for the staffers and the MDC.

River Farm is worth saving for reasons beyond George Washington, historians say

Kat Imhoff, who spearheaded many of the descendant efforts before stepping down as Montpelier’s president in 2019, said in an email that she was “heart-sick” over the firings and what she called a “lack of commitment to telling complete history … At a time in the world where we need courage to stand up to those who would quiet the voices of truth, the Montpelier board is on the wrong side of the struggle and on the wrong side of history.”

On Monday, Reeves said in the news release that he had “devoted my archaeological career to understanding the lives of the enslaved men, women, and children who lived at Montpelier in partnership with the Montpelier Descendants Committee. To be retaliated against by the Montpelier leadership for doing my job is a bitter irony.”