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Montpelier says it's open to parity with slave descendants. Descendants call foul

Matt Reeves, a former employee of Montpelier who was fired this week, pictured outside of the historic Gilmore cabin at Montpelier.
Alana Wise, NPR
Matt Reeves, a former employee of Montpelier who was fired this week, pictured outside of the historic Gilmore cabin at Montpelier.

The historic Montpelier, home of the fourth U.S. president, James Madison, and birthplace of the Constitution, is in turmoil this week as a result of a bitter debate between administrators of the estate and descendants of those the American statesman enslaved there.

At least four employees of the Montpelier Foundation have been fired and several others disciplined.

At issue are seats on the board that runs the foundation. The board has for years been predominantly white. The Montpelier Descendants Committee (MDC), which represents some 300 descendants of enslaved people, had sought to change that.

Last year, the two parties struck a power-sharing agreement that would see half of the seats on the board be selected by the MDC.

But last month, the foundation board abruptly voted to change its bylaws, effectively stripping nominating power from the Black descendants, and in the MDC's eyes, robbing Black people of the opportunity to have equal buy-in on managing the grounds that their ancestors for generations toiled and maintained.

The foundation says it wants to expand the number of nominees beyond the MDC's choices.

"Basically what they're afraid of is the MDC taking over the board," says Elizabeth Chew, one of the fired employees.

Chew had been executive vice president and chief curator of Montpelier. She was out of the office visiting family when she got the email — to her personal email address — notifying her that she had been terminated.

Montpelier employees, as well as some board members, describe an environment rife with racism. White board members, they say, do not want to see power shared with descendants of the Black people who literally built the estate.

One board member, multiple people allege, described a Black man as having intimidated him with a "Frederick Douglass stare."

The fear of a takeover, Chew says with incredulity, was rooted in what the board saw as "angry Black folks."

Two calls to board chairman Gene Hickok and a call and a text to Montpelier President and CEO Roy Young went unanswered by the time of publication.

A longtime dispute

The discord at Montpelier is years in the making.

The Montpelier Foundation on Tuesday defended its decision to fire at least four employees and discipline additional staff, citing monthslong performance issues.

"The Montpelier Descendants Committee (MDC), through its leadership, has worked relentlessly for months to create dissension and division among the staff of James Madison's Montpelier. Some members of the Montpelier staff have, as a result, spoken disparagingly, even hatefully, of the volunteer Board that governs this historic American treasure," wrote Hickok.

"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. Work was not getting done. Projects were being halted. Montpelier's leadership could not allow that to continue," Hickok wrote.

Terminated employees say that is not the case.

One employee, who asked that their name be withheld due to their need to now re-enter the job market, says that the foundation is engaging in misinformation.

The employee says they maintained an "exemplary" record at Montpelier, including their most recent performance review, which the employee says was well above average.

"I have never spoken out against the board or management," the employee says. But their backing of the MDC, including their support for a statement put forward by a majority of Montpelier's full-time staff, the employee said, led to their firing.

"You can't make this s*** up," the employee wrote in a text.

Multiple people spoken to for this story described issues stemming from management, particularly Hickok and Young, the chief executive.

The pair, interviewees say, sought to steer the foundation away from truth telling, leaning away from the horrors of American slavery to a more whitewashed version of history designed to protect the image of President Madison as the preeminent brilliance behind U.S. democracy.

A number of people called for Hickok and Young to resign or be fired.

"It was one of the most honest acts they've done because everything else they've done has been so underhanded," says Matt Reeves, who was terminated. He is the former Montpelier director of archaeology and landscape restoration. "They presented themselves as being kind and caring, and then behind the scenes, when no one's looking, have been just simply bullying and trying to intimidate and foster an atmosphere of fear and just a toxic work environment."

"This time they really came through with their actions publicly matching what they were doing behind the scenes," he says.

Reeves had been at Montpelier for more than two decades and spoke of the picturesque grounds as his home — the place where he taught his now-adult children how to ride bikes.

Now, Reeves — who was also let go via an email sent while he was away on a months-planned family vacation — worries about the future of the place where he dedicated his life's work.

"That statement," Reeves says of Hickok's words, "makes me sick because it shows no understanding and a complete perversion of everything that is Montpelier. And it shows, to them, what they see as Montpelier is not the history, not the work that we've done. It's something else that is terrifying to think they'll undo and create."

"Usually racists are more competent"

James French, a Montpelier Foundation board member and chair of the Montpelier Descendants committee, pictured at his family home in Orange, Va.
/ Alana Wise, NPR
Alana Wise, NPR
James French, a Montpelier Foundation board member and chair of the Montpelier Descendants committee, pictured at his family home in Orange, Va.

James French, who is a descendent of formerly enslaved people in the region, chairs the Montpelier Descendants Committee and is on the Montpelier Foundation board. He said the firings are further proof of what he alleges is the foundation's inability to take responsibility for its poor decision making and the board's refusal to own up to its failures to share power with Black descendants of the enslaved.

"The CEO and chairman continue to blame everyone but themselves for the sad situation," French says in a statement for the MDC. "They're deep in a bubble of denial. They blame the descendants. They blame their staff. They blame the National Trust for Historic Preservation. They blame every other national organization that has condemned their actions. They blame the media. They imply that the public is too dumb to understand."

He continued: "It's clear that there will not be a resolution while they are in their positions. It's so plainly time for new leadership."

The MDC earlier this month offered the board a solution to minimize fallout from its earlier reneging of its agreement to reach parity on the board. The MDC submitted a list of professionals to be considered for 12 board seats, which would have fulfilled the power-share agreement.

The board, MDC attorney Greg Werkheiser says, countered with a list of "poison pills" meant to rob any potential MDC of actual decision-making power, sanction the firing of employees the board deemed problematic, and remove French from the board.

The MDC refused.

As for why the board has yet to reach an agreement with the MDC, Werkheiser put it plainly.

"Usually racists these days are more competent," he says.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alana Wise
Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.