Visitors to James Madison's Montpelier estate in Virgina (via Flickr)

The CEO of the Montpelier estate in Virginia, the former home of America’s fourth president James Madison, stepped down from his role this week. CEO Roy Young’s resignation comes after the museum and educational center’s board of directors finally achieved parity with the descendants of people enslaved at the 2,650-acre plantation, and in the wake of staff allegations of retaliation against workers who advocated for the descendants.

The board, which manages the estate’s finances, has appointed an interim CEO, the estate’s vice president and chief curator Elizabeth Chew. It has also elected a new chairperson, Montpelier Descendants Committee (MPC) leader James French.

The Montpelier estate made headlines in June 2021, when it announced that its board of directors would “share power” with the descendants of the estate’s over 300 enslaved individuals, making the institution the first of its kind to do so. The move was praised as a vital step in recognizing the role of enslaved people in America’s history.

But parity was only achieved in May of this year, after the estate’s leadership initially reneged on their promise.

In March, the majority-White board voted not to share power with the MPC, established in 2019 to represent the descendants in advocating for co-stewardship of the estate. Leadership stated that the committee was difficult to work with and that they wanted to share ownership with a wider pool of descendants.

Staffers who supported the MPC’s aims said they were intimidated with threats of termination from the estate’s leadership, and in April, three senior staffers who advocated for the group were fired.

At the time, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which owns the plantation and leases it to the Montpelier Foundation, released a statement “strongly condemning” the terminations and questioning whether a resolution was possible under the estate’s current leadership. The MDC called for the resignation of Hickok and Young, who were appointed to their positions in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

After public pressure, including a petition that received over 11,000 signatures, the foundation announced they would hold their board election in May rather than in the fall, and on May 16, the MPC finally achieved its goal: 11 members nominated by the committee were elected to Montpelier’s board of directors. Now, 13 of the board’s 20 seats are filled by descendants or people endorsed by the MPC. Before the election, the board only had three members nominated by the committee.

A statue of James Madison in the Library of Congress. Madison enslaved over 300 people at his Montpelier estate. (via Flickr)

The new board immediately elected a new chairperson, James French, who was the first chairperson of the MPC and had already been a member of Montpelier’s board.

“From Montpelier’s first commitment to parity, to the board’s massive resistance, to their formal retraction, and finally to their implementation, millions of people were inspired, then disgusted, and then exhilarated,” Greg Werkheiser, the lawyer who represents MPC, told Hyperallergic in an email.

“Those many who watched Montpelier’s recent failings can now be engaged to grow Montpelier into one of the greatest cultural institutions in the country and a model for thousands of other sites through which we convey our best values,” Werkheiser continued. “That is the vast potential flowing from this bruising battle.”

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.