AAA Calls for the Montpelier Foundation to Honor Agreement with Enslaved Descendants - Participate and Advocate
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AAA Calls for the Montpelier Foundation to Honor Agreement with Enslaved Descendants

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March 31, 2022

Another Promise Broken

Reverse, as in “the opposite of moving forward.” That’s the direction the Montpelier Foundation took last week when it inexplicably retracted their much-publicized and praised promise to share governance of President James Madison’s estate with the Montpelier Descendants Committee (MDC), the organization representing descendants of the families whom Madison enslaved. Instead, the foundation’s board voted that they alone would choose descendant representatives.

Until recently, Montpelier was recognized as a pioneer in descendant engagement and just last year voted to change the bylaws to allow MDC to nominate “at least half” of Montpelier’s board members. Nine months after the board pledged to share governance, however, only three MDC-nominated board members have been appointed to the board of 16 members. In addition, the MDC has made public the board’s refusal to review a list of 40 highly qualified board prospects, including persons of national prominence in the fields of philanthropy, history, government, and businesses, identified by MDC.

The reversal has caused an uproar, as well it should, with nearly 5,000 members of the visiting public and donors signing a petition opposing the board’s actions. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which leases the 2,650-acre presidential plantation to the foundation, warned of “irreparable harm” to Montpelier’s legacy, and a majority of the estate’s full-time staff members issued a public statement rebuking their employer for breaking its commitment to MDC.

The decision is more than disrespectful. It dismisses the right of the descendants to define themselves and how their enslaved ancestors’ experiences are represented, rather than being defined by the Foundation. The descendants’ participation is an acknowledgment of the importance that documentation, interpretation, and preservation of this heritage resource benefit from the central involvement of the people still living with the legacies of a painful past. Their voices, their perspectives, and their demands should be given shared weight.

After hundreds of years of empty and unfulfilled agreements and “assurances,” the descendant communities are experiencing yet another broken promise. The Montpelier Foundation should honor its previous agreement to share power equally with the Montpelier Descendants Committee.



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