The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In reversal, Montpelier appoints directors from descendants of the enslaved

Visitors tour Montpelier, home of America’s fourth president, James Madison, in Orange County, Va. (Julia Rendleman/The Washington Post)
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RICHMOND — The board that oversees James Madison’s Montpelier estate has chosen 11 new directors recommended by a group representing descendants of enslaved workers, claiming a milestone in diversity at a major historical site.

Monday’s vote creates full parity for the descendants of the enslaved in the leadership of the Montpelier Foundation, and amounts to a sharp turnaround from the board’s effort in March to repudiate the Montpelier Descendants Committee.

“It has been a long and not always easy process to get to this point, but one result of the process has been the identification of an incredibly gifted and renowned slate of new Board members,” the foundation said in a news release. Board chairman Gene Hickok, who had driven the split with the MDC, is stepping down as his term comes to a close.

“I am very pleased that the goal of parity has been achieved and that the Foundation has added such distinguished new members to its Board. I wish the Board every success in moving ahead for Montpelier’s benefit,” Hickok said in a written statement.

The new members include TV journalist Soledad O’Brien and Harvard professor and former NAACP chief the Rev. Cornell William Brooks.

“As our nation grapples with and even grieves over the racial injustices of this day, the work of the Montpelier Foundation is all the more important: teaching the lessons of the living legacy of President James Madison, studying the past and possibilities of our Constitution, and sharing across our Republic and beyond the ongoing story of those enslaved at Montpelier,” Brooks said in a news release.

James Madison’s plantation vowed to share power with Black descendants. Then things blew up.

Some 300 people were enslaved over a 150-year period at Montpelier, the family home of Madison, who was the nation’s fourth president and the father of the U.S. Constitution.

Montpelier had attracted worldwide attention a year ago when it pledged to seek “structural parity” on its board with members of the descendants community. But earlier this year, Hickok led a vote to strip power from the MDC, which the descendants had organized as their official representative.

Hickok said in interviews that the MDC had become difficult to work with and that the board needed to maintain control over its membership. His stance prompted an outcry among staffers at Montpelier, and last month the foundation fired several of the more outspoken of them, including the chief curator and a director of archaeology.

Montpelier staffers say they were fired for backing descendants group

More than 11,000 people signed an online petition expressing support for the MDC and the fired staffers. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which owns the estate and retains the foundation to run it, also expressed strong disapproval with Hickok’s effort to strip the MDC’s formal status.

Faced with that outcry, the foundation appeared to reconsider and announced plans late last month to accept MDC-nominated members after all.

On Monday, board vice chairman Peter McHugh praised Hickok in an email: “Gene Hickok has over a decade of service to Montpelier and, at the Board’s request, even extended his service as Chair to help move Montpelier forward. As he leaves the Board on May 16, we are deeply grateful for his dedication and commitment to Montpelier.”

The new appointees increase the board’s overall membership to 25. Of those, 14 have ties to the MDC. Another two represent the National Trust and have supported the efforts to include the descendants community.

Some push back as plantations talk more honestly about slavery

The members were chosen from a slate of 20 nominees submitted by the MDC. The committee said Monday that those not chosen to serve on the board have been invited to create an advisory committee to work with the foundation.

“At the end of the day, it’s not a victory for one perspective or another, it’s a victory long-term for Montpelier,” said Greg Werkheiser, a lawyer with Cultural Heritage Partners representing the MDC. “The opportunity now is to take all of the attention that was paid to Montpelier’s stumbles and refocus it and engage it to help write Montpelier’s next chapter.”