Why the Voices of the Enslaved's Descendants Matter at Montpelier and Other Historic SitesRoundup
tags: slavery, James Madison, Montpelier, public history
Stephen P. Hanna is a professor of geography at the University of Mary Washington. Amy Potter is an associate professor of geography at Georgia Southern University. Derek H. Alderman is a professor of geography at the University of Tennessee. .This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
On May 17, after weeks of negative stories on Montpelier in the national press, the foundation that operates the Virginia plantation home of James Madison finally made good on its promise to share authority with descendants of people enslaved by the man known as “the father” of the U.S. Constitution.
This agreement is the result of a long struggle by this descendant community to make enslaved people more prominent in the history Montpelier offers the public.
Though presidential plantation museums began addressing the topic of enslavement over 20 years ago, descendants were not given power over their ancestors’ stories.
In 2018, provoked by years of slavery being taught in erroneous ways, a summit of educators, museum professionals and descendants gathered at Montpelier to define a set of best practices for how historic sites should work with descendant communities.
Ensuring that enslaved people’s descendants have power and authority within these institutions is central to the guide.
Working toward that goal in 2021, Montpelier announced a historic agreement giving descendants equal representation on its board of directors.
These innovations made Montpelier a leader in slavery interpretation.
But that status was threatened earlier this year when Montpelier dissolved its power-sharing agreement with the descendant community.
The foundation’s chairman said the board “has found the committee (representing descendants) difficult to work with.”
Montpelier also fired senior staff who protested this decision, accusing them of speaking “disparagingly, even hatefully, of the volunteer board that governs this historic American treasure.”
A firestorm of protest erupted.
Thousands signed petitions urging Montpelier to live up to its promise to work with the descendants. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which owns Montpelier, stated that the foundation’s actions “would set back Montpelier’s efforts to continue the necessary work of uplifting descendant’s voices.”