March 30, 2022
Inside the front section of today’s local newspaper was an article on the James Madison’s Montpelier estate board of managers. Less than a year after the board that manages Madison’s Montpelier estate in Virginia announced plans to share authority equally with descendants of the people once enslaved there, the board has voted to strip power-sharing status from a group representing African Americans who trace their roots to the historic estate. This is a reversal of the board’s public commitment made on June 16, 2021, and the committee head, James French, called it “a rejection of the principle of equality of descendant voices”.
When I looked online, I found the Montpelier estate, located in Orange County, Virginia, was the plantation house of the Madison family, including fourth president of the US, James Madison, and his wife Dolley. The 2,650-acre (10.7 km2) property is (again) open seven days a week with the mission of engaging the public with the legacy of Madison’s most powerful idea: government by the people. Montpelier became a National Historic Landmark and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. In 1983, the last private owner of Montpelier, Marion duPont Scott, bequeathed the estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP). The NTHP has owned and operated the estate since 1984. In 2000, The Montpelier Foundation formed with the goal of transforming James Madison’s historic estate into a dynamic cultural institution. From 2003–2008 the NTHP carried out a major restoration to return the mansion to its original size (22 rooms) when it was occupied by James and Dolley Madison.
Archeological investigations in the 21st century revealed new information about African American life at the plantation, and a gift from philanthropist David Rubenstein enabled the NTHP to restore the slave quarters in the South Yard and open a slavery exhibition in 2017. In June 2021, the Montpelier Foundation approved bylaws to share governance of the estate with the Montpelier Descendants Committee, composed of descendants of those enslaved at the estate. Over the last two years tension has grown between the board and the committee, with the main issue being how to frame Madison’s legacy. Bettye Kearse, a board member forward by the descendants committee, says, “The board wants to continue telling the public a whitewashed narrative about the Constitution and its chief architect and deciding what should be said about the 300 people Madison owned.” Foundation chair Gene Hickok said the board is not backing away from its commitment to fully represent descendants on the board but working with the committee has been difficult. The board now wants to decide which descendants are chosen.
THOUGHTS: The Montpelier board was justifiably commended for their decision to include the descendant’s committee in governance of the estate. The difficulty with providing parity is when you include different voices you also receive diverse viewpoints, making it harder for the established elite to control direction. Slavery was contrary to the radical ideals embraced by the carefully crafted US Preamble and Constitution. “All men are created equal” means ALL men and ALL women. If that is not the case, the oppressed merely become the oppressor. Do the work. Change is coming and it starts with you.