James Madison's Montpelier shares power with enslaved people's descendants
ORANGE COUNTY, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- Descendants of people enslaved by James Madison's family will now co-lead the former U.S. president's estate, Montpelier.
It's a breakthrough milestone that didn't come easy. The landmark decision giving descendants equal power is a first for U.S. historic presidential sites that were former places of enslavement.
"We, too, are the co-founders of this nation, and we would like that to be told," said James French, a member of The Montpelier Foundation (TMF) Board of Directors and the chair of the Montpelier Descendants Committee (MDC), and a descendant, himself.
The board took a vote to make TMF and MDC co-equals in governing Montpelier on June 16, just three days before the newly-declared federal holiday Juneteenth.
“This is the culmination of a 28-plus years engagement with the Montpelier Descendants community, and more recently, a deliberate, year-long process by the board to achieve organizational and structural parity, which reflects the complete history of this specific place and America as a whole,” said Gene Hickok, chair of TMF, in a media release.
More than 300 people were enslaved at Madison's estate, outnumbering those who were not 24 to one. The descendants of those same people will now have more authority in telling the history of the site.
The MDC was assembled in 2019 based on a rubric developed the prior year. It detailed best practices for engaging descendant communities, but French said it hadn't really been put into action.
He adds that the updated power dynamic will lead the way for new projects, like memorializing unmarked graves of enslaved people and detailing the history of the African-American community that made up Montpelier.
"What we want to do is to, through research and through ground-truthing of archeology, and through historical expertise, try to discover the missing plotlines of the story that created the ingenious Constitution," French said.
In other words, contextualizing history by adding to it.
"We believe that adding to the truth benefits everyone. Adding to one story does not subtract from another. It's the complete story," French said.
TMF and MDC hopes other similar institutions will be inspired by the decision and do the same.