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Leadership of Madison's home sparks a family feud

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Rick Seaman
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Descendants of enslaved people seek greater role in the leadership of Montpelier

Last summer, Montpelier made history when it announced that half the seats on its board would be filled by descendants of enslaved people like Mary Elizabeth Alexander.

“I am a descendant of Paul Jennings who was the manservant and valet to James Madison and shaved him every day for 41 years,” she says with a note of pride.

About 300 people have joined the Montpelier Descendants Committee, although spokesman Greg Werkheiser says some could not prove a connection to the plantation.

“The records of the lives of the people who were enslaved are sparse. Frequently it’s just a first name," he explains. "To put it on folks who know they were descended the enslaved in that area to have to prove a direct connection to someone at Montpelier is unreasonable, especially since the Madisons, like others, sold their slaves to other places.”

But Mary Alexander thinks the leadership of that group should be bona fide relatives of Montpelier slaves, and she decided not to join.

“They have a political slant that I don’t think is proper,” she says.

For example, the committee had talked about having the area from George Washington’s home – Mount Vernon – to Montpelier declared a World Heritage Site, but Alexander – a professional real estate investor – thought that could interfere with property owners in between.

“Anything that effects people’s property rights, I don’t think Montpelier should be involved with it.”

And she objected to talk of creating a curriculum for public schools.

“When you enter politics into a historic preservation or education forum, you tend to skew the way that people see history, but we shouldn’t tell it from the perspective that somebody’s a good guy or a bad guy. I don’t think that Montpelier should have anything to do with revisionist history.”

Management had pledged to let the committee choose half of board members, but last week it decided against that plan. President and CEO Roy Young said he wanted the freedom to put someone like Mary Alexander on the board.

“We really want to make sure that all descendants have an equal voice," he explains. "Some of those descendants choose to do that through the Montpelier Descendant Committee. Others choose to do that directly with our foundation., and we really want to keep it as open and as broad as possible.”

The decision upset many on Montpelier’s staff and drew an angry response from committee spokesman Greg Werkheiser. He notes there are just five descendants on the board of 16 and wonders why management didn’t expand membership to 25 – as allowed in Montpelier’s by-laws ---- and appoint more people of color last summer.

“After nine months the descendants say, ‘Why are you taking so long?’ The response is, ‘We’ve changed our mind.’ Folks who are comfortable, wealthy, white and who enjoy their position as leadership of this board don’t want to be asked difficult questions.”

Descendants, for example, claimed there are no full-time Black employees at Montpelier. Roy Young says there is actually one, but that’s not the foundation’s fault.

“Coming to work each day at a plantation site is difficult. It represents a part of their family’s history that’s very painful. Their ancestors were slaves here.”

Still, he pledges to try and attract more people of color to work at Montpelier and insists the foundation’s board will – eventually – fill half its seats with descendants.

“It’s not as easy as it might seem getting their names well-vetted by both organizations," Young claims, "but allowing that to happen on a quick timetable isn’t the goal. The goal is to find the best national representation of descendants that we can to serve on our board.”

Greg Werkheiser says the descendants committee offered a list of 40 highly qualified candidates, but the board chose not to review it. He predicts Montpelier’s decision to fully control who sits on its board will hurt the institution.

“They’re going to lose future donors. They’re going to lose visitors. They’re certainly going to have the reputation of the institution harmed. They will likely lose employees who don’t want to be associated with what’s going on there. You know, that’s a loss for everybody.”

President Young says he hopes that won’t happen and vows to keep control of board membership despite objections from some members of the public and the National Trust for Historic Preservation which owns Montpelier.