A civil action

by Brian Clarey

A glow seeps out from the Woolworth’s building on the corner of Elm Street and February One Place, gives an energy to the early evening bustle, a suggestion of warmth on this chilly night.

The old building looks great from out on the street as twilight takes hold. It would have been difficult not to notice the surge of activity on the historic structure where, 50 years ago, four brave college students took a quiet stand — new tar on the roof, restoration of the architectural flourishes, a good wipe of the windows. The old gal looks great, and it seems she’ll be ready for her deadline: Feb. 1, 2010, the 50 th anniversary of the Greensboro Sit-in.

Other proposed opening dates for this enterprise have come and gone — I, in fact, was hired to write about it for Our State magazine when it was scheduled to launch in 2004; the contract was pushed to 2005 when the deadline changed, and then I took this job at YES! Weekly, where we have witnessed another few soft deadlines come and go.

So I don’t feel too bad that I’m a little late for this event, which is more of a fundraising call than a tour of the facility. And raising funds has been a primary activity of the Sit-In Movement, Inc., the 501(c)(3) begun in 1993 by former Greensboro City Council District 1 representative and the current NC state representative from Guilford County Earl Jones and Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston with the express purpose of buying the old FW Woolworth’s building and converting it into a museum to commemorate the Greensboro Four.

And as anyone who has been associated with this 17-year effort can tell you: This thing gorges on money like a sugar junkie when the ice-cream man’s in town.

More on that in a bit…. For now the scrum of interested parties — be they civil rights buffs, downtown boosters, museum junkies, general philanthropists and journalistic scourge — takes form in the newly appointed lobby of the building, a loose semicircle under the new track lighting, as Chad Oakley, a Greensboro boy made good by way of the Wharton School of Business, lays it down.

“The press has been largely negative,” he says. “[But] I truly do believe that Greensboro is about to launch a worldclass museum.”

The foyer looks great, with refurbished crown molding and big picture windows on the thoroughfare. A long, gray wall, one with spaces delineated on it for names of donors, blocks the rear of the museum from view. A peek behind it reveals an escalator. Going down.

“Greensboro needs this,” Oakley is saying. “I am of the belief that one great building… leads to the next one.”

The pitch is a pretty reasonable one: For a grand pieced off at $200 a year, you can get your name on the wall. A one-time $50 donation gets you charter museum membership. And as always, there is no ceiling for charitable giving.

The state has thus far kicked in more than $1 million, as has the Bryan Foundation. Z. Smith Reynolds and American Express have both contributed at the $500,000 level. And the list of $200,000 donors is 10 strong, including the city of Greensboro, Guilford County, AIG and Bank of America.

But the story here is not in who is ponying up, but who isn’t.

Citizens of Greensboro have twice voted against funding the museum, and the city itself, it seems, has shut off the tap.

And one might think that African Americans of prominence and success might be eager to contribute to a project like this. Bill Cosby, perhaps. Spike Lee. Oprah.

One would be mistaken. There are no “whales” as such on the museum’s donor list; the largest personal contribution came through Gladys Shipman, at $20,000, from right here in Greensboro.

So when a surly reporter in the back asks, “Why’d it take so long?” money is at the root of the answer.

The building was constructed in 1929, for one, with wear and tear that included a leaky roof, water infiltration and structural issues. Plus, the building had to be brought up to museum standards, required for storing valuable historical artifacts, necessitating a back-up HVAC system that itself cost $3.5 million.

“When a small non-profit engages in this kind of project,” says Amelia Parker, the museum’s executive director, very patiently, “it is enormously expensive.”

Fair enough, but the buzz in the room indicates that it is Jones and Alston themselves who hampered the project by courting controversy and polarizing the electorate. Parker isn’t having that.

“This could have been a parking lot if it weren’t for the tenacity of Skip Alston and Earl Jones,” she says.

Alston and Jones, however, are nowhere to be seen on this cool and damp winter night.