Justice Prevails: Descendants of enslaved people at historic plantation win bruising battle to tell their stories
Rhonda Sonnenberg, SPLC Senior Staff Writer
Set on a pastoral landscape at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains outside Orange, Virginia, Montpelier is among the country’s premier historic plantation sites.
It was the home of James Madison, the so-called father of the U.S. Constitution and the nation’s fourth president.
It was also “home” to 300 enslaved people during Madison’s time, and their descendants are now boldly asserting the right to tell their stories.
For the past 18 months, Montpelier’s conservative, white leaders had been battling the Montpelier Descendants Committee (MDC) – an organization dedicated to restoring the narratives of enslaved African Americans on the plantation – over its demand for equal voting power on Montpelier’s board.
Previous Montpelier leadership and staff had established relationships of trust with the descendant community. In 2019, the MDC was established to push for “structural parity.” The board reluctantly made parity official in Montpelier’s bylaws in June 2021, only to begin undermining that promise.
But in a stunning turn of events this week, MDC representatives not only obtained parity on the Montpelier Foundation board but took the majority of board seats for the first time.
Montpelier President and CEO Roy Young II resigned, and two conservative board members quit. The move left a solid majority (13 out of 20) board members, including the MDC chairperson, as descendants of enslaved people or endorsed by them.
“Four hundred years and counting, and we still have to convince the primary beneficiaries of slavery that our ancestors were essential to the founding of this nation,” said Iris Ford, a retired anthropology professor whose great-grandfather Alan was recorded as “son of the master” at an adjacent plantation that later became part of Montpelier and has watched events unfold.
Harvard [University] just allocated $100 million to acknowledge that immense wealth was made on the backs of enslaved people,” said Ford, a member of the MDC. “That money certainly does not serve as the standard for acknowledging injustice, but it is a recognition of America’s true history. When people ask what this history has to do with James Madison: It’s the realization that the well-crafted story of Montpelier and the nation’s founding myths are not just a moral matter but a matter of racial injustice.”
It was late March when the former foundation board members voted to reverse their promise to share power with descendants. On April 18, Young and former Board Chair Gene Hickok fired three revered, longtime staff members – Elizabeth Chew, Montpelier’s vice president and chief curator, Montpelier’s chief archaeologist; and its spokesperson – and suspended two others in what was seen as retaliation for their highly public support of the MDC.
But after public outrage and critical media coverage, a landmark resolution on May 16 in favor of the MDC apparently ended the bruising battle when the Montpelier foundation board voted to approve 11 new, MDC-nominated members to equally share power in Montpelier’s governance.