The Washington Post
ORANGE, Va. (AP) — Less than a year after the board that manages James Madison’s Montpelier estate in Virginia announced plans to share authority equally with descendants of people once enslaved there Below, the board voted to remove the power-sharing status of a group representing African Americans who trace their roots to the historical field.
The Montpelier Descendants Committee chose three descendants of slaves to serve on the board and the foundation chose two more, but Friday’s vote means the committee cannot appoint future members, giving the foundation greater control over the composition of the board of directors, reported the Washington Post.
“It is a complete reversal of their public commitment that was made on June 16, 2021,” said James French, committee leader and board member of the Montpelier Foundation. “It’s a rejection of the principle of equal descending votes and it’s a shame, because it’s a missed opportunity for Montpellier to make history.”
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The past two years have seen heightened tensions between the board and the committee, while Montpelier’s reputation as a pioneer in empowering traditionally marginalized groups has grown.
At issue is how the estate frames the story surrounding Madison, the nation’s fourth president who is known as the Father of the Constitution.
The board “wants to continue to tell the public a whitewashed narrative about the Constitution and its chief architect and decide what to say about the 300 people who belong to Madison,” said board member Bettye Kearse. administration proposed by the committee of descendants. Washington Post in an email.
Foundation Chairman Gene Hickok said the board is not backing down from its commitment to full representation of descendants on the board, an idea known as structural parity, but working with the committee has been difficult and the board wants being able to choose descendant members from a wider pool.
“This is an effort to reset the process,” Hickok said. “The board is certainly not moving away from parity. We are very attached to parity. The challenge has been to get there on the organizational level.
The change has upset many estate staff, who say the Descendants Committee has been a partner in interpreting the history of Madison, her family and the approximately 300 slaves who lived and died there during 140 years old.
A majority of the roughly 40 full-time staff urged the board not to approve the change in an unsigned resolution.
Paul Edmondson, chief executive of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which owns Montpellier, wrote to Hickok on Thursday urging him not to go ahead with the rule change. The descendants chose the committee as their official voice, he said, and the initial commitment to give them equal seats on the board “recognized the right of the descendant community to define itself, rather than defined by the foundation.The newly proposed revisions to the bylaws would do the opposite.
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