Montpelier's fight with descendants of the enslaved brings employee firings Problems at Montpelier, years in the making, reached a boiling point this week when a number of employees who had supported descendants of the enslaved were fired.

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

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A battle has erupted at the estate once owned by the so-called father of the Constitution between the property's administrators and the descendants of individuals whom President James Madison enslaved. Boiled over this week, and several employees at Montpelier who supported the descendants were fired. NPR's Alana Wise has the story.

ALANA WISE, BYLINE: Montpelier is where James Madison, the fourth U.S. president, lived most of his life. The home today is a vast and picturesque estate open to the public. Last year, Montpelier was on track to lead a new movement for historical sites, setting a landmark agreement to give 50-50 structural parity on its board to descendants of the enslaved. Previously, just a few members were Black.

JAMES FRENCH: We expected to be embraced by this institution based upon our ancestors' contributions.

WISE: That's James French, who chairs the MDC - the Montpelier Descendants Committee - which represents the families of the formerly enslaved. The move would have been a watershed agreement at a time when organizations all across the U.S. are grappling with how best to address the Founding Fathers and their complicated legacies. But the agreement was put into jeopardy earlier this month.

FRENCH: The CEO and chairman continue to blame everyone but themselves for the sad situation. They're deep in a bubble of denial.

WISE: French is on the board and was referencing CEO Roy Young and board chairman Gene Hickok. The MDC says Montpelier doesn't want to share decision making with Black people. But Young, the CEO, says that's not the case.

ROY YOUNG: They consider descendants to be those who they recommend to represent them. And from the foundation's perspective, we want all descendants to have the ability to be part of our governance and part of our community and part of our work.

WISE: In regards to this week's terminations, Young said the firings were not retaliatory. Instead, he told NPR people were let go after months of performance issues.

But former staff say that's not the case. NPR spoke to three people who had been fired from the foundation. They say Montpelier terminated them based purely on their support for descendants of the enslaved.

MATT REEVES: It was one of the most honest acts they've done because everything else they've done has been so underhanded.

WISE: That was Matt Reeves discussing his termination. Until this week, he was the Montpelier director for archaeology and landscape restoration. Earlier, Reeves had fought back tears discussing Montpelier, which he described as his home. It was the place where he taught his now-adult children how to ride their bikes. He worries about the foundation's future.

REEVES: It makes me sick because it shows no understanding and a complete perversion of everything that is Montpelier.

WISE: Elizabeth Chew was also fired this week.

ELIZABETH CHEW: They're trying to undo 20 years of work with the descendants and this model for, you know, structural parity.

WISE: Chew said the Montpelier board is scared of being overrun by Black nominees. Her thinking echoes several people interviewed for this story. Employees and some board members describe an environment rife with racism. Multiple people recounted a board member saying that a Black man had intimidated him with a, quote, "Frederick Douglass stare." Several people called for the board chairman - as well as Young, the CEO - to resign or be fired. Young told NPR he has no plans to step down. French, the MDC chair, put it this way.

FRENCH: It's so plainly time for new leadership, and everyone seems to understand that but them.

WISE: The Montpelier Foundation says it's open to addressing parity on its board. This week, the board announced it would accept nine new members put forward by the MDC. But the Descendants Committee says the move is just a ploy to distract from larger issues. For now, though, the two parties seem no closer to reaching an agreement at the estate of the fourth U.S. president.

Alana Wise, NPR News, Orange County, Va.

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