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

Visitors tour Montpelier, home of Americas fourth president, James Madison, in Orange County, Virginia.
The Washington Post via Getty Images
Visitors tour Montpelier, home of Americas fourth president, James Madison, in Orange County, Virginia.

Updated April 20, 2022 at 10:46 PM ET

The foundation that runs Virginia's historic Montpelier, home of the fourth U.S. president, James Madison, and birthplace of the Constitution, said Wednesday it was open to addressing parity on its board and giving equal representation to descendants of those the American statesman had enslaved.

But the group that represents the descendant community has said such a move is meant to distract from the mostly white-run board's refusal to share power with Black people.

At issue are seats on the board that runs the foundation. The Montpelier Descendants Committee (MDC), which represents some 300 descendants of enslaved people, had sought to change the board's makeup.

Last year, the two parties struck a power-sharing agreement that would see half of the board's seats selected by the descendants of the enslaved.

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 bitter debate reached a breaking point this week, with the firing of three senior staff who had supported the Black descendants community. A fourth staff member had been fired last week.

A 'poison pill'?

Previously, the foundation has said it wanted to expand the number of nominees beyond the MDC's choices.

But in a Wednesday statement after reports of the firings, the foundation said that it would accept nine new candidates nominated by the MDC.

"The issue regarding parity at Montpelier has been settled for some time," Gene Hickok, chairman of the foundation board, said in a statement. "The disagreement is about how it should be achieved."

The statement said it has asked the descendants' committee to submit a list of 15 names, from which nine would be selected to join three MDC members already on the board.

"We expect to choose from an MDC list of prospective nominees in an expedited manner, consistent with the Foundation's governance policies, and plan to have new members join in two tranches, to be completed in 2022," the statement added.

One tranche, the statement said, would be as of July 1, and the other October 1. All would be elected at the May meeting.

But the MDC and its attorney described a similar move — earlier suggested to the descendants as a way to resolve the impasse — as an action meant to ensure the predominantly white board maintains power. The MDC called it a poison pill.

MDC attorney Greg Werkheiser said Wednesday in an exclusive statement to NPR, "The Foundation agrees to appoint MDC nominees in May, but to delay giving most of them power until October. That creates two classes of directors with unequal power. Why? Because the current board will maintain a 2/3's majority for almost five months."

Werkheiser said the board plans to use its majority to prevent the rehiring of fired staff, retaliate against more staff and current MDC board members, and amend the bylaws to dilute MDC's representation going forward.

The mission, the committee alleges, would be to ensure that board members chosen by the foundation maintain their seats during upcoming elections, and are able to unseat James French, the MDC chairman who also is on the foundation board.

"Sadly, Chairman Hickock is showing why he simply cannot be trusted to lead Montpelier out of this crisis and must step aside," Werkheiser said.

More than half a dozen requests for comment to Young, the CEO, and Hickok, the board chair, went unanswered by the time of publication.

Dispute years in the making

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

Chew had been executive vice president and chief curator of Montpelier. She was 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.

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 said with incredulity, was rooted in what the board saw as "angry Black folks."

As to the employee terminations, the Montpelier Foundation on Tuesday defended its decision, 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," wrote Hickok. "Some members of the Montpelier staff have, as a result, spoken disparagingly, even hatefully, of the volunteer Board that governs this historic American treasure."

"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 said that is not the case.

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

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

"I have never spoken out against the board or management," the employee said. 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.

Longtime employee fired

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

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," said Matt Reeves, who was terminated.

Reeves 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," he said.

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

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

French said the firings are further proof of what he alleges is the foundation's inability to take responsibility for its poor decision-making.

"The CEO and chairman continue to blame everyone but themselves for the sad situation," French said in an earlier statement. "They're deep in a bubble of denial."

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

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

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