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What Is Going On at Montpelier?


History is a battle between sides wanting to tell different stories. Some of those sides stand for justice. Others stand for repression. At Montpelier, James Madison’s home in Virginia, those who have fought for justice have made incredible strides. Nowhere in this nation is the story of slavery told better, at least in terms of spaces that are initially designed to represent elite whites. It’s really quite remarkable. The entire point of the tour now is to note Madison’s hypocrisy as the guy who wrote the Constitution while not only having slaves his whole life but being even worse than Jefferson on the issue, never even seriously considering emancipation, selling them off to reduce debts, etc. It’s a great tour. And yes, whites get very uncomfortable on it while Black families are amazed that this is the story they are hearing, at least in my experience on it. Then in the cellars, there are even more discussions of slavery. The slave graveyard is now memorialized. It’s a great thing.

There’s a group called the Montpelier Descendants Committee, which is a group of slave descendants who play an active role in interpreting the site. But recently, the conservative groups around the site are counterattacking. And now they are purging Montpelier employees who support the MDC.

This morning, the National Trust for Historic Preservation learned that key professional staff members of The Montpelier Foundation who have spoken out in support of the Montpelier Descendants Committee have been terminated or suspended.  The terminations included Elizabeth Chew, Executive Vice President & Chief Curator, and Matt Reeves, Director of Archaeology and Landscape Restoration, two long-term employees who are largely responsible for building the groundbreaking interpretive and research programs at Montpelier in collaboration with the descendant community.

This really is a battle over whose story gets told. The fired employees came out in support of the MDC in this letter which lays it out. Here’s a couple of the resolutions in it.

WHEREAS, “structural parity” means that the official entity representing the descendants of those who were enslaved at a historic site is a co-equal steward of that site, having equal representation in its governing structures, particularly at the board level. As the Rubric says, “In its most fundamental form, a ‘descendant community’ is a group of people whose ancestors were enslaved at a particular site, but it can transcend that limited definition. A descendant community can include those whose ancestors were enslaved not only at a particular site, but also throughout the surrounding region, reflecting the fact that family ties often crossed plantation boundaries. A descendant community can also welcome those who feel connected to the work the institution is doing, whether or not they know of a genealogical connection.” In its two decades of engagement with the Descendant Community, Montpelier has defined “descendants” in these broad terms.

WHEREAS, after over nine months TMF has failed to make any real progress on implementing parity with the MDC on its board.  WHEREAS, museum professionals have an ethical mandate to engage and collaborate with the descendants of the people who were enslaved at the site under investigation, with a goal to establish a cooperative working relationship that can be beneficial to all parties involved. The New York African Burial Ground project (1991-1993) provides an excellent example of how greater accountability from archaeologists and more openness in the archaeological process contributed to a cooperative project involving researchers, consultants and other stakeholders.

WHEREAS, TMF staff has worked with the Montpelier Descendant Community since TMF’s creation in 2000. Indeed, many staff members have chosen to work or to continue working at Montpelier due to the unique nature of the staff-Descendant collaboration.WHEREAS, in June 2019, the Descendant Community organized to create the MDC, a 501(c)3 non-profit recognized by the TMF board as the sole representative of the Descendant Community.

WHEREAS, following the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, TMF’s leadership’s failure to agree to sign a joint statement with the MDC, and the subsequent breakdown in the TMF-MDC relationship, Montpelier staff members have been systematically prevented by TMF from interacting and collaborating with the MDC, and threatened with termination for doing so.  

WHEREAS, despite funding received and important projects waiting for collaborative action, we have been at a standstill on these projects due to TMF’s actions.

Now, I understand that this might sound very much in the weeds. But it doesn’t take much to understand what is really at stake–the descendants and most of the major employees and interpreters who have done so much to make Montpelier a must-see site are on side and the rich people in charge of the whole operation are on the other. The former are making demands for further commitments for racist justice and the latter are going to purge them for it.

In short, this is a microcosm of the larger issues facing race in America.

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