James Madison's home at Montpelier in Orange County, Virginia (photo by Ron Cogswell via Flickr)

James Madison’s historic Montpelier estate in Virginia, a museum and educational center dedicated to the legacy of the fourth president of the United States, is accused of terminating and suspending senior staffers in retaliation for their support of descendants of people who were enslaved by Madison.

On Monday, April 18, three longtime employees at Montpelier received termination notices from the foundation’s CEO, Roy Young: Executive Vice President and Chief Curator Elizabeth Chew, Director of Archaeology Matt Reeves, and Director of Communications Christy Moriarty.

The foundation’s events manager, Alex Walsh, was fired last week, and two other senior staffers — Archaeology Field Director Christopher Pasch and Mary Furlong Minkoff, director of archaeology and curator of archaeological collections — were suspended, according to a statement from the staffers and the Montpelier Descendants Committee.

More than 300 people were enslaved at Madison’s Montpelier plantation in Virginia’s Orange County between 1723 and 1844. In June of 2021, Montpelier made a public commitment to “share power” with descendants of the enslaved families, who are represented by the Montpelier Descendants Committee (MDC), founded in 2019.

The foundation’s leadership promised the MDC “equal co-stewardship authority” over Madison’s estate and museum in a decision that was hailed by many as a historic milestone. The plan was conceived during the 2018 National Summit on Teaching Slavery, hosted at Montpelier, which developed a set of standards titled “Best Practices in Descendant Engagement in the Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites.” For a while, these announcements placed the foundation at the forefront of efforts to redress the country’s bleak history of slavery.

But in March, the Washington Post reported that Montpelier’s board reneged on its commitments, voting to strip the MDC from its power-sharing status. The vote came after two years of tensions between the board and members of the MDC.

Ivan Schwartz, “Dolly and James Madison” (2009) at the Montpelier Foundation (photo by Ron Cogswell via Flickr)

“It is a complete reversal of their public commitment that was made on June 16, 2021,” James French, head of the MDC and a member of the Montpelier Foundation’s board, told the Post at the time. “It’s a rejection of the principle of equality of descendant voices and it’s very unfortunate, because it is a missed opportunity for Montpelier to make history.”

That same month, the majority of staffers at Montpelier released a statement saying they had been “systematically prevented” from interacting and collaborating with the MDC and “threatened with termination for doing so.” Later in March, more than 7,000 people signed an online petition in support of the MDC and Montpelier staff’s fight to “ensure parity” at the foundation.

Now, the MDC is calling for the resignation of Young and Montpelier board chairman Gene Hickok.

“It’s a sad day for Montpelier and for the leadership of cultural institutions struggling to tell honest history,” said Greg Werkheiser of Cultural Heritage Partners PLLC, the attorney representing the MDC, in a statement to Hyperallergic. “When Young fires everyone who thinks he is a failed leader, he’ll find Montpelier uninhabited.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which owns the 2,650-acre plantation and leases it to the foundation, released a statement “strongly condemn[ing]” the terminations of leading staffers.

The National Trust added that it has been working to resolve the dispute between the foundation and the MDC but said that the recent terminations and other actions by Montpelier “lead us to question whether a resolution is possible under the current leadership of the Foundation.”

In a statement shared with Hyperallergic, Hickok attributed the terminations to “repeated and disruptive violations” of employment policies and accused the MDC of “creat[ing] dissension and division among the staff.”

“The atmosphere at Montpelier had become untenable and toxic, aggravated by misleading public statements made by the MDC and by bias demonstrated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation,” Hickok said. “Work was not getting done. Projects were being halted. Montpelier’s leadership could not allow that to continue.”

Reeves, who worked at the foundation for more than 22 years and wrote extensively about Montpelier’s history of slavery, said in a statement: “I have devoted my archaeological career to understanding the lives of the enslaved men, women, and children who lived at Montpelier in partnership with the Montpelier Descendants Committee. To be retaliated against by the Montpelier leadership for doing my job is a bitter irony.”

“We are in awe of these faithful employees for their principled stand, and pray that their leave from Montpelier is temporary,” Bettye Kearse, one of MDC’s leaders and a Montpelier board member, said in a statement. Kearse is a descendant of Coreen, a cook who was enslaved at Montpelier, and President Madison; she is one of five descendants of enslaved individuals serving on the foundation’s board.

“Any historic site would be lucky to have them,” Kearse added. “Montpelier, however, will be unable to replace the brain trust it has so thoughtlessly discarded.”

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Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...