Three years after the Thomas Jefferson Foundation celebrated her addition to its board, acclaimed Jefferson historian Annette Gordon-Reed has resigned.
It is a significant loss for the board, which greeted the renowned Gordon-Reed with much fanfare upon her 2020 arrival.
When the foundation — a nonprofit group that owns and operates Monticello, the UNESCO World Heritage Site that was once the Founding Father’s estate — announced the addition of Gordon-Reed, it touted her extensive credentials, such as her MacArthur Fellowship, her faculty position at Harvard University, her National Humanities Medal gifted to her by President Barack Obama and her award-winning books, including “The Hemingses of Monticello.”
In 2009, Gordon-Reed was the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for History for that work, which recounts the history of four generations of the Hemings family, from their origins in Africa until the death of Jefferson, their master and the father of Sally Hemings’ children. The book won more than a dozen other awards.
On its website, the MacArthur Foundation refers to her as a scholar “whose persistent investigation into the life of an iconic American president has dramatically changed the course of Jeffersonian scholarship.”
“Over the course of several decades, no one has done more to bring the stories of the Hemings family into the public dialogue than Annette Gordon-Reed,” said Leslie Greene Bowman, then the foundation’s president, announcing Gordon-Reed’s appointment. Bowman noted that Gordon-Reed had long served as an adviser to the staff at Monticello. “Annette has been critical in our efforts to restore the voices of the men and women who were enslaved at Monticello, underscoring our commitment to history that is honest, complicated, and inclusive.”
It is not clear why Gordon-Reed, who The Daily Progress could not reach for comment by press time, left the board.
Hers is the second high-profile departure from Monticello in recent months, after the October dismissal of Gabriele Rausse, the museum’s director of gardens and grounds who was helping to restore Jefferson’s grapevines on the mountaintop and who is considered the “Father of Virginia Wine.”
Both of their exits come after the October announcement that another Harvard historian, Jane Kamensky, will be taking over as president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation this month.
Neither of their departures were publicly announced by the foundation.
University of Virginia historian Alan Taylor is friends with both Kamensky and Gordon-Reed.
“There’s no mistake that Annette Gordon-Reed is an extremely distinguished person and her departure from the board is a loss. There’s no mistaking that,” he told The Daily Progress.
But he also added that he believes Kamensky will do a “terrific” job as the new president and that, like any institution, there needs to be some changes at the foundation.
“Jane Kamensky has initiated some changes that are well within her area of responsibility, and I wish Annette Gordon-Reed was more supportive of those changes,” he said. “It would be my preference if they saw eye to eye on those things. That would be the ideal world.”
“I don’t think she’d resign unless there was something she was concerned about,” he said.
Taylor cautioned that he has not spoken to either Kamensky or Gordon-Reed since he was told the news, and said he does not know exactly why Gordon-Reed stepped down.
“I’m just sorry she has done it because it’s a blow to a very important institution and one where I think Jane Kamensky is going to do some very important work,” he said.
Many of the board members who sat alongside Gordon-Reed did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Progress.
Joseph Erdman, however, did pick up the phone. The Charlottesville resident is the president of Albemarle Asset Management, an investment and estate planning boutique, as well as a trustee of the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, a charitable trust created by the will of the acclaimed 20th century artist Joseph Cornell. Erdman said he had not heard of the news but noted he is not very active on the board today. Erdman said he could not be sure he had ever even met Gordon-Reed.
Another board member, Peter Coolidge, a New York-based portfolio manager who was one of the founders of internet information site Angie’s List, referred The Daily Progress to the foundation’s communications team.
“We are sincerely grateful for Professor Annette Gordon-Reed’s many years of commitment and dedication to Monticello; her scholarship and leadership have had an immeasurable impact on Monticello, and we wish her all the best in the future,” said a Monticello employee who asked to be identified only as a Monticello spokesperson.
While no one would publicly say why Gordon-Reed stepped down, multiple Monticello staff members, who declined to allow their names to be printed, said they knew of at least one reason why she would leave the board.
Before Gordon-Reed resigned, they said, the board offered University of Edinburgh American history professor Frank Cogliano the position of director of the International Center for Jefferson Studies. Cogliano had been serving in the position on an interim basis before the offer. But after offering Cogliano the job, staff members said, the board rescinded its offer at the direction of someone not on the board.
The Daily Progress could not reach Cogliano to confirm this claim.
Asked whether an offer to Cogliano was indeed rescinded, a Monticello employee neither confirmed nor denied the claim, saying only that the center’s leadership has not yet been determined. Cogliano remains listed as the interim director on the Monticello website.