James French, a financial technology entrepreneur, is chair of the Montpelier Descendants Committee and a member of the Montpelier Foundation Board. @JAlbertfrench

On June 15, 2019, descendants of the enslaved people at James Madison’s Montpelier convened at the site to establish an organization that would represent their informed and informative perspectives on how history is interpreted and presented at the birthplace of the Constitution. The Montpelier Descendants Committee (MDC) is the nation’s first independent, descendent-led organization to be associated with a major historic site and was founded on the democratic principles set forth in the Rubric of Best Practices for Descendant Engagement in the Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites. This document, created at Montpelier in 2018, set the standard for telling a more inclusive and complete American story at museums and historic sites throughout the country.

Montpelier has a conflicted history. Not only was it once the wealth-generating plantation belonging to our nation’s fourth president, James Madison, and the place where he formulated the concepts and ideals of our Constitution, but Montpelier was also a major site of enslavement where the needs of the few were serviced by the forced labor of the many. For more than 120 years, some 300 enslaved American men, women and children were held in bondage, bought, sold and buried in unmarked graves at Montpelier.

The MDC believes that before the true history of Montpelier can be known and shared — including that of the innumerable vital roles played by enslaved people throughout the founding era — the narratives, perspectives and, most important, the authority of the descendants to serve with the Montpelier Foundation (TMF) as equal co-stewards of the museum must be established. Such a relationship is the right thing to do and offers an innovative opportunity to build an institution that tells broader, richer and more truthful interpretations of history to wider audiences.

Together, putting the rubric into action, the TMF and the MDC can pioneer a model for moving the perspectives of the descendants of the enslaved from the periphery to the center. Montpelier has taken steps in that direction. In 1992, members of the descendant community reached out to Montpelier’s steward, the National Trust, and established a relationship. The Montpelier Foundation began returning Black history to the landscape in 2004 with the restoration of the Gilmore Cabin in 2005 and the South Yard in 2011. In 2017, the Montpelier Foundation launched the award-winning exhibition “The Mere Distinction of Colour,” which focuses on the narratives of the enslaved at Montpelier as told by their descendants. Now, we must take the next step by closing the gap in authority between museums and the descendants of enslaved people.

Since the murder of George Floyd, the Montpelier Descendants Committee has advocated for “structural parity” introduced in the rubric in 2018. Such equality of power would mean that the MDC and TMF would be equal partners in endorsing candidates to fill vacant and new board positions, until representation is evenly balanced.

TMF and the MDC have come a long way over the past year. Last August, we signed an agreement in which TMF recognized the MDC as the “sole representative organization of the Montpelier Descendant community, as that community is defined by [the rubric].” We are now finalizing an agreement to serve as equal partners on a major memorialization project for the cemetery of the enslaved. And in May, the TMF board passed a resolution affirming “its commitment to collaborate with the Montpelier Descendants Committee to achieve structural parity with descendants at all levels of the organization.”

Now the foundation must put this commitment to long-term structural parity into action by approving bylaw changes at a Wednesday meeting.

Montpelier has long been recognized in the museum field as a leader among presidential homes. And we are certain that establishing structural parity with the Montpelier Descendants Committee is in keeping with this tradition. The prospect of an MDC-TMF co-stewardship relationship based upon structural parity will be nothing less than groundbreaking.

Preservationists and museum professionals often refer to the “power of place” to describe how power resides and operates between people and their environments. It is a versatile notion that can also be used as a vehicle for public engagement, shedding light on opportunities for social and racial reconciliation, justice, and equity. Montpelier’s extraordinary power of place is remarkable in demonstrating how a single space was simultaneously occupied by polar opposite paradigms of power: freedom and slavery. What can we learn from this paradox? How should we interpret the history here, how should we tell it, and what lessons and impact can it have? These are some of the critical questions the MDC, in the proposed partnership with TMF, seeks to answer.

If we are to tackle these complex questions in earnest, we must first commit to solving an important legacy problem. The scholars who authored the rubric describe it well when they make the case that at museums devoted to former sites of enslavement: “Descendants of enslaved people have not only been largely excluded from interpretation in museums, but when they are included, they are compartmentalized, tokenized, and used only when convenient.” This Wednesday, the Montpelier Foundation board has the momentous opportunity to overcome this problem of historic imbalances in decision-making power and authority between museum institutions and the descendants of the enslaved. The objective of the MDC is to create a balance, and the American public will be the ultimate beneficiary.

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