Our Journey

From Exclusion to a New Standard for Excellence

In February 2018, a group of nearly fifty educators, curators, scholars, activists, museum and historic site professionals, and descendants gathered at James Madison’s Montpelier in Orange, Virginia at the inaugural National Summit on Teaching Slavery. The Summit’s scholarly output, the Rubric of Best Practices for Descendant Engagement in the Interpretation of Slavery (the ‘Rubric’), provides a self-evaluation methodology for museums and historic sites. The paramount principle of the Rubric, Structural Parity, is to share power and decision making authority equally with descendants, ensuring effective, respectful and accurate interpretation of slavery.

June 2019 saw descendants of hundreds of Americans enslaved at Montpelier and nearby plantations convening to discuss the Rubric and their relationship with the Foundation. This meeting resulted in the establishment of an organization, the Montpelier Descendants Committee (MDC). The first organization founded upon the principles of the Rubric, the MDC sought to represent descendants’ interests with The Montpelier Foundation (TMF). James French was elected as the MDC’s founding Chair and proposed the name to evoke Madison’s service on Orange county’s Revolution-era Virginia Committee of Safety.

While the Rubric provided an important articulation of inclusivity principles, and supplied a detailed methodology for self-evaluation, it lacked a framework for implementing joint governance.  French saw this an entry point to explore Montpelier’s larger “parity paradox” for clues on how to translate the aspirations of the Rubric into a new model for governance. Writing in the Washington Post on May 16, 2022, on Montpelier, French observed:

It is where two diametrically opposed visions of power have clashed for centuries: liberty and slavery. For almost a century and a half, a single family derived its wealth and prestige from the brutal extraction of forced labor of hundreds. At the same time, it is where, in the words of Madison, a revolutionary “experiment of an extended republic” was crafted in the hope that “the patriotism of the people will continue, and be a sufficient guard to their liberties.” The MDC understood that within this paradox was an opportunity to reconcile communities — local, regional and national — that had been separated and even polarized throughout history by building an expanded common base of memorialization.

The opportunity to which French referred lay in the natural alignment between the principles of Structural Parity and Madisonian principles of representative democracy. In a museum context, this alignment provides the opportunity to develop a governance model that merges the equal distribution of power and decision-making found in Structural Parity with the foundational ideals of representative democracy. By harmonizing these principles into a new governance model, French aimed to equip Montpelier with institutional capacity, through education, to bridge historical divides, reconcile communities, and establish a broader and more inclusive foundation for memorialization spanning local, regional, and national levels.

In his dual role as chair of the MDC and TMF board member, over four years, French spearheaded efforts to achieve Structural Parity at Montpelier, marking a historic milestone in museum governance. Navigating sustained resistance, his negotiations resulted in the seating of 11 new national board members to represent descendants, making TMF the first American institution and Founder site to share power equally at the board level.

Subsequently elected as TMF’s Chair, the first from a descendant background of any Founder site, French reinstated staff supportive of parity, formulated a new strategic vision built around parity, secured a $5.8 million Mellon Foundation grant, and initiated the CEO hiring process.

The attainment of Structural Parity at TMF represents a seminal moment in the evolution of museum governance, echoing far beyond its walls to impact cultural sites and corporate practices worldwide. French, acclaimed as the trailblazer behind this transformative endeavor, concluded his tenure as TMF’s Chair in Spring 2023. Now, as the Founder/CEO of Brownland Leadership Solutions (BLS), he embarks on a new odyssey. BLS is poised to forge alliances across diverse sectors, partnering with leaders in culture, technology, business, and academia to amplify the influence of this paradigm and ignite a renaissance across institutions.