Sit-in museum progress hits a water-damaged wall

by Amy Kingsley

More than a year after a planned grand opening for the International Civil Rights Center and Museum passed, boarded windows stand in place of displays and neglected construction equipment occupies the corners reserved for exhibits.

The silence from museum administrators since the last opening date was postponed last summer has left some locals wondering whether Greensboro will ever see a facility dedicated to the 1960 sit-ins that sparked the civil rights movement. Day-to-day operations at the museum have shifted several blocks down Elm Street, to the US Trust building where executive director Amelia Parker explained the center’s progress on Feb. 17.

Parker started her job at the helm of the International Civil Rights Museum in 2004, right when workers started demolishing the interior of the old Woolworth’s building. County Commissioner Skip Alston and Rep. Earl Jones, the founders of Sit-In Movement, Inc., had scheduled grand opening celebrations to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the Feb. 1, 1960 start of the Greensboro sit ins. Soon after her arrival in the Gate City, Parker was informed that the demolition uncovered serious water problems in the 75-year-old building’s basement.

‘“Once we started interior demolition, we realized that a great deal of the problem was hidden from sight,’” Parker said.

In pictures, Parker showed where brick walls had been removed to reveal massive water stains and structural damage. In addition, architects and construction supervisors determined that the building’s HVAC system would not maintain the rigorous climate specifications required for artifacts and archives.

The facility upgrades swelled the museum’s price tag to $6 to $7 million. So, instead of focusing on serving the 250,000 visitors estimated to visit the center each year, Parker has had to concentrate her energies back on square one ‘— fundraising.

Despite impatience in some quarters, Parker and Jones insist that they are still adhering to a schedule set at the beginning of the process, before enough money had even been raised to purchase the building.

‘“There is progress, and the museum should open in one or two years,’” Jones said. ‘“We’re right on schedule of 12 to 14 years based on museums in Birmingham, Alabama and Memphis, Tennessee I set the original schedule to open in twelve years.’”

That was the February 2005 date that came and went. Jones was referring to the National Civil Rights Museum housed in the Memphis hotel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Both were grassroots efforts to buy historically significant buildings and transform them into museums.

But museum boosters maintain that the delay is necessary to ensure that the International Civil Rights Center and Museum fulfills the expectations of visitors from all over the country. The first and most important artifact administrators must preserve is the building itself, Parker said.

Although moving to a new location would have been less costly, it was not an option the board of directors ever considered. Repairs need to utilize the basement will also help preserve the building in the future, Parker said.

In addition, artifacts traded between museums arrive only when circumstances laid out in a facilities report are met. The report, much like a rider outlining specifics for a performer, details conditions like humidity and temperature that must be maintained as a condition of the loan, Parker said.

A marketing video produced for the organization outlines the ambitious plans in store for the revamped facility. One of the hallmark exhibits will feature a video screen that rises to reveal a replica of the dorm room where four NC A&T University students planned to protest. The university partnered with the museum’s board of directors in 2001.

David Hoard, associate vice chancellor for development and university relations, recently changed his title from Sit-In Movement, Inc. CEO to senior advisor. He said his role in the organization has not changed much. The change does allow the organization to guard its records more closely, which it could not do before under public records laws.

‘“There’s nothing to hide,’” Hoard said. ‘“We’re willing to give up everything. But when I’m negotiating with donors, they wanted access to thank you cards, and we don’t think we should have to show those.’”

Still, the organization’s history has not been entirely without controversy. James Mayes, an early executive director, split from the organization over competing accusations of his inefficiency and misappropriation by Jones and Alston. Subsequent audits by the city and county cleared the organization of wrongdoing.

Ten years later, progress is evident on the building’s façade. The Woolworth’s sign has been recreated in red and gold. Documentary photographs block the windows that would otherwise reveal a high-tech facility.

But the interior visible through an opening blocked by yellow caution tape looked nothing like the lofty plans laid out in marketing materials. Still, all of those involved in planning the museum made assurances that it would soon.

‘“This community, this state is about to unveil one of the most important treasures in our nation’s history,’” Parker said. ‘“It is an enormous project we are undertaking and it is important that we do this correctly so that it is one of the most moving, informative and energetic museums in this country.’”

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