For over two decades, James Madison’s Montpelier has been recognized as a leader among historic sites for its collaborative work between descendant communities, staff, board members, and scholars. At the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience we have taken great pride in its membership and shared Montpelier’s approach widely, holding it up as a prime example of how historic sites can support truth telling and reconciliation in order to build more just and humane futures. The story of what the site has accomplished together with the Montpelier descendent community has been inspirational for others addressing similar legacies across the globe.
These decades of good work are now threatened by the Montpelier Foundation’s March 25 decision to retreat from an agreement that distributed authority equally between the board that manages the site and the Montpelier Descendants Committee. The move strips the descendants of their power-sharing status, thereby drastically reducing their influence at the site. As Montpelier notes in its own rubric on engaging with descendant communities, shifting power is at the core of redressing historic harm: “Exemplary structural parity occurs when members of the descendant community are represented and empowered at every level of the institution…” With the decision to change the board’s bylaws, the Montpelier Foundation is abandoning its own exemplary practices by excluding and disempowering the descendant community.
The history of Montpelier is defined by the vision of equal participation in governance and the realities of exclusion. The Montpelier Foundation can still choose a different path, one of full engagement with those whose voices, experiences and perspectives must be centered. By reversing this change in bylaws, the Montpelier Foundation can again be a shining example of the work that can and must be done to reckon with our past.
It is imperative that the Montpelier Foundation honor its previous agreement to share power equally with the Montpelier Descendants Committee.
Dismantling unjust systems is not easy, but it must be done, and it must be done now. Historic sites have a moral and ethical responsibility to honor their truths, to expose the roots of systemic injustice, which is a core tenet of the Coalition and the practice of members around the world who are striving to build a just future.
As the only global network of historic sites and museums dedicated to using past struggles for justice to address their contemporary legacies, the Coalition calls on the Montpelier Foundation to rescind its change in bylaws and maintain equal power-sharing with the Montpelier Descendants Committee.
International Coalition of Sites of Conscience