James Madison’s Montpelier Votes To Share Power With Descendants Of Slaves

The Montpelier Foundation (TMF) board of directors voted Wednesday, based on a proposal from the Descendants, to approve bylaws to establish equality with the Montpelier Descendants Committee (MDC) in the governance of James Madison’s Montpelier, the home of the fourth president and “Father of the Constitution.”

“More than 300 American men, women and children were enslaved at Montpelier and played vital roles throughout the founding era of our country. The true history of Montpelier cannot be known or shared without including the stories and perspectives of those who were enslaved,” said James French, founding chair of MDC and board member of TMF. 

“This historic decision means that for the first time, the descendants of enslaved persons at a major national historic site will be co-equals in sharing governing power and responsibility for the very site that enslaved their ancestors,” said Gene Hickok, chair of the board of directors of TMF.

The vote on bylaws on June 16, 2021, during the week of Juneteenth, followed a resolution passed by the Board of TMF on May 27 which stated, “The Board of The Montpelier Foundation affirms its commitment to collaborate with the Montpelier Descendants Committee (MDC) to achieve structural parity with descendants at all levels of the organization.”

This vote came after tremendous leadership from, and collaboration with, MDC and represents an important step toward equity and reckoning with histories of racism. The relationship provides a national model for resolving historic imbalances in decision making, power, and authority, according to a release.

Paul W. Edmondson, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said, “On behalf of the National Trust, the owner of Montpelier, I want to say how pleased we are that the board of directors of the Montpelier Foundation has approved a proposal to amend the Foundation’s bylaws to provide equal representation of the Montpelier Descendants Committee on the board. By this action today, the Montpelier board of directors and the MDC have shown critical leadership in creating equitable governance of a site that is not only the ancestral home of James Madison, but also of hundreds of people enslaved by the Madison family. The National Trust strongly supported this proposal, and we worked with both parties over the past year to achieve this new level of partnership.”

“We commend both The Montpelier Foundation and the Montpelier Descendants Committee for working together to achieve this breakthrough,” said Edmondson.

Mediators Selena Cozart and Frank Dukes of the Institute for Engagement & Negotiation at the University of Virginia congratulated TMF, MDC, and the National Trust on this historic partnership. “We hope that the brave conversations that nurtured new relationships and that led to this truly momentous agreement will inspire other organizations to action.”  

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