By Andrew Nurse
On May 16, a Montpelier Descendants Committee (MDC) press release announced that “The Montpelier Foundation’s board of directors voted to welcome eleven new members from a list […] advanced by the […] MDC.” The release described the decision as “momentous.”
This decision reversed a short-lived but important controversy in American public history.
The Montpelier Foundation (TMF) administers the estate of Founding-era slaveholding president James Madison.
In June 2021, TMF “promised structural parity” at the board level with the MDC in a move that drew widespread attention and support among American public historians. Earlier this year, TMF backed away from that commitment and fired long-standing and well-respected staff who were critical of its change of course. Both decisions drew condemnation because they suggested that TMF had little interest in meeting its promise and had lost interest in a different approach to the administration of public history.
What happened? Why? And what does it tell us about American public history?
TMF leases the Madison estate from the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP). As an historic site, Montpelier and TMF have been in the forefront of innovative developments in the organization of American public history. James Madison was the fourth president of the United States, a slaveholder, and one of the framers of the American constitution which guaranteed federal support for slavery.
Montpelier’s representation of the past is uneven and might, in fact, send mixed messages. On its most evident level, it connects American public history to consumerism, promising ex-urbanites extensive hiking trails across the nearly 2 700 acre estate, grand vistas, and images of elegance while selling James Madison bobble heads and branded clothing. On another, it seeks to provide a serious exploration of Madison’s ideas and the constitutional development of the United States. Here, Madison’s conception of “government by the people” is lauded as his enduring legacy and his commitment to slavery presented as a paradox that he, himself, found distasteful.
On a third level, Montpelier also has a long history of working constructively with the descendants of enslaved African Americans.
In 2003, TMF began extensive restorations on the property that included the main house, but which neglected slavery. In response to concerns voiced by the descendants of slaves, TMF began to reconstruct slave quarters and undertake archaeological research that unearthed the lives and aspirations of enslaved African Americans. By 2012, TMF set for itself the objective of reconstructing “the physical landscape of slavery.” It worked closely with the descendant community, established an on-going physical and virtual exhibition, “The Mere Distinction of Colour,” which culminated in a conference and interpretive rubric that set a new bar for the public historical representations of American slavery. TMF’s 2021 decision to solidify its relationship with the descendant community by creating “structural parity” was consistent with this history.
For TMF, the key issue seems to be how its governing board was selected. The MDC believed it had authority to nominate half the board membership. The MDC is a non-profit organization consisting of, and representing, the descendants of slaves from central Virginia. Today, it lists about 300 members.
This was the agreement TMF backed away from. Its Board asserted that it retained final authority to name its own members and that it wanted to exercise that authority to broaden Board diversity. It also offered a new timeline. Members would be appointed to the board but, in effect, not seated. They would be Board members but would not exercise authority or vote.
This decision proved controversial. Key members of its staff had worked closely with the MDC for years and were upset by what they viewed as the abrogation of the earlier agreement. Staff were ordered to stop working with the MDC or speaking to the media. Three senior staff members were fired, and two others suspended for unspecified “policy violations” (see here and here).
TMF’s decisions drew an immediate backlash. An online petition rapidly rose to 11,000 names, while leading American public historical institutions spoke out against the decision. These included: the American Alliance of Museums, the Association of African American Museums, the American Association of State and Local History, and the NTHP.
TMF at first tried to defend itself. It issued a press release that accused the MDC of a lack of cooperation but never actually explained the precise issue on which the two bodies differed. TMF’s board chair resigned, and its CEO also seems to have departed.
TMF’s decision to reverse course and adhere to its original agreement raises important issues for public history.
It raises questions about authority over the past and the meaning and implications of diversity in the administration of public history. On an abstract level, what appears to have been at stake were competing conceptions of authority over public history. It demonstrates the processes through which public historical institutions can attempt to re-assert their own authority over the past. What seems to have been at stake in this case is the MDC’s equality and authority over board appointments.
I find two aspects of TMF’s actions particularly disturbing.
First, TMF was willing not simply to break an agreement it had made but was willing to risk a remarkably important long-standing collaborative relationship and create a toxic work environment for its staff.
Second, TMF tried to deploy a discourse of enhancing diversity to break an agreement with the descendant community.
In effect, TMF was asserting that it – and not the descendent community – determined what constituted diversity and the expertise necessary to be part of its board. The NTHP raised precisely this concern in a public letter it sent to TMF. The Foundation, it said, needed to “acknowledge the right of the descendant community to define itself, rather than be defined by the Foundation.”
I am sure that questions about authority over the past and modes of community collaboration will continue. But the fact that an important public historical institution tried to reject collaboration with the descendant community in the name of “diversity” and then attempt to silence staff critical of its perspective is distressing.
The good news is that it did not work.
The MDC stood its ground. American public historians spoke up in defense of the original agreement. A new board has now been elected, and it includes an impressive list of scholars.
Montpelier is also now embarking on its next step. The new Foundation board has indicated that it is interested in putting its own past behind it and taking its next steps. It will be interesting to see what these will be.
Andrew Nurse is a professor of Canadian Studies at Mount Allison University.