Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Historian resigns from Executive Mansion position highlighting stories of enslaved

Person acknowledges child with hand raised
Crixell Matthews
Archeologist and historian Kelley Fanto Deetz gives an unofficial tour of Virginia's Executive Mansion. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Kelley Fanto Deetz believed an educational space in the Executive Mansion had been turned into a family room by Youngkin’s staff. We’ve updated the story with clarification from Youngkin’s spokesperson noting that the space is not used for that purpose. 

Archeologist and historian Kelley Fanto Deetz resigned on Friday from a position as Virginia’s Executive Mansion’s director of historic interpretation and education.

Deetz had worked with a broader team aiming to tell the story of descendents of workers who once lived and worked at the site, which is the oldest continuously occupied, purpose-built governor's residence in the U.S. Former First Lady Pam Northam was a driver in the project and helped hire Deetz, but the archeologists’ position has been unclear since Gov. Glenn Youngkin was inaugurated. 

Deetz declined to comment on the decision beyond confirming it.

Deetz previously told VPM she’d arrived at the mansion last month to find someone had moved aside period cooking supplies on loan from Monticello and other sites in the historic kitchen, Deetz said. Her office had also been emptied. A TV had been placed inside a planned educational space for mansion visitors (and former laundry and sleeping quarters for enslaved workers), leading Deetz to believe the space was being reconverted into a family room. 

Macaulay Porter, a spokesperson for the governor said on Wednesday that First Lady Suzanne Youngkin and her staff “are in the decision-making process regarding the Executive Mansion.” On Saturday, after the publication of the story and over two weeks after VPM first inquired about Deetz’s observations, Porter clarified that the former educational space was not being used as a family room.

Suzanne Youngkin “looks forward to finalizing the Executive Mansion layout and tours,” she said. “The Youngkins are excited to welcome Virginians back to the Executive Mansion.”

The rooms sit in a building next to the mansion where enslaved butlers, maids and cooks once cooked, did laundry and slept after the mansion was completed in 1813. It was later used by governors for purposes ranging from storage to family space. 

It is unclear the extent to which the broader project, which was steered by descendents of the workers and members of the Citizens' Advisory Council on Furnishing and Interpreting the Executive Mansion, will continue under the Youngkins. Porter declined additional comment on Deetz’s resignation.

One early leader of the project, Justin Reid, said in a Tweet on Thursday that the work would continue.

“The work of telling our Executive Mansion’s whole history is bigger than an elected or staff position,” wrote Reid, the former chair of the CAC’s education committee . “A remarkable group of Descendants of the enslaved, educators, & historians have built a foundation strong enough to withstand four years of any administration.”

Youngkin has ordered an end to educational initiatives that draw from “divisive concepts,” including the idea that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity, sex or faith, is racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously.” His critics say the executive order is an unenforceable and could discourage the teaching of oppressive parts of U.S. history, including the legacies of slavery.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.