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Greensboro’s Civil War

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by Jeff Sykes

Like any good Southern American white man I get a powerful thirst to study Civil War military campaigns when the days turn long and the weather turns hot. I’ve long since mastered the details of Antietam and Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, but this summer my attention has turned to Grant’s Overland/Wilderness campaign and the stunning lengths to which Lee went to defend against overwhelming odds.

If I recall correctly, my first interest in the War Between the States began in about third grade when I came across a book in the school library about the battle of ironclads. The Monitor and the Merrimack battled in March of 1862 just outside of Hampton Roads, lobbing shells at each other at close range for about two hours, unable to do much damage either way.

Some 154 years later, both Grant’s Over land Campaign and the Battle of Hampton Roads seem ripe comparisons for the standoff between the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, the City of Greensboro, and those white male critics who cry about “Skip and Earl this” and “Skip and Earl that” every time the ICRCM is mentioned in the press.

The museum has a long and divisive history in Greensboro. Skip Alston and Earl Jones are no strangers to making enemies, and it seems that this legacy is what an overwhelming majority of vocal white male observers cling to when the ICRCM comes to mind. Even veteran local politician Mike Barber, currently an at-large member of the city council and a rumored potential mayoral candidate in 2017, clings to the notion that “Skip and Earl” might be able to make some money by selling the museum at some point in the future.

Then there’s the mantra trotted out by white male haters of the ICRCM that “Skip and Earl” are somehow making money or will make money off of once and future rent payments at the museum.

It’s an unfortunate blight on the community as a whole in Greensboro that the divisive reputation of two of the museum’s tireless champions seems to subsume the potential for good inherent in the museum’s existence beneath a thick layer of racial animosity. Leaders, and I mean real leaders and not the fake developer-backed politicians that pass for leaders in Greensboro, need to step up to the plate and solve this one once and for all.

The museum, which is in honor of the four NC A&T students who stood up for equal rights on a February day in 1960 and spawned a Civil Rights Movement, should be the unparalleled cornerstone of Downtown Greensboro. Not Zack Matheny’s office. Not Roy Carroll’s condo. Not the baseball stadium or an unimaginative square box at South Elm or some gaudy, over-hyped park on Davie Street. No amount of new frills and window dressing will ever change the fact that Greensboro is known as the birthplace of the Sit In Movement.

I’m sorry. Zack is a great guy. I get it. Roy is awesome and so is Union Square and LeBauer Park. And who doesn’t like baseball? But until the festering open racial sore that is the public conversation about the future of the ICRCM is healed, the frilly greatness that is the vision of Action Greensboro and their private foundation financiers will be a Pyrrhic victory that achieves little of substance.

It’s going to be a big week for showmanship in Greensboro, with Union Square Campus and LeBauer Park opening during the same week. I’m sure there will be tons of talk about “creating flow” from Gate City Boulevard to Davie Street. The hype around the Tanger Performing Arts Center will be deafening. All this chummy goodness just oozing with selfcongratulatory hype will be as thick as the humidity during the past month.

But sitting there, right in the middle of the Center City, is the ICRCM. It’s been scrutinized and audited and hung in public by the city council and on the pages of the Greensboro News and Record over and over ad nauseam. It continues to amaze me that white Greensboro can go on and on about the $35 million for this and the $7 million for that and the $25 million for Zack Matheny to redo downtown in his own image but goes absolutely apoplectic at the thought of the ICRCM being assisted by taxpayer dollars.

The City of Greensboro agreed to float a $1.5 million forgivable loan to the museum in early 2014 in order that the museum would not default on the complicated federal tax credits that helped finance the construction. This was a wise and prudent move by the council. The contract stipulated that monies raised outside of normal business channels would be used to offset the amount of the loan required to be paid back.

At present, city bean counters calculate that the museum raised about $700,000 against the total loan debt, leaving $800,000 to be repaid. Museum officials counter that more was actually raised, leaving a debt of about $250,000.

The federal tax credit structure falls away this month as those credits are repaid in full. The museum should be in a much clearer cash flow picture after that. Believe me, I’ve studied the tax credits for two years and barely understand them now. When they go away, that will be good for everyone involved.

Lingering, however, is the city having written off $1.2 million for the Nussbaum Center after the small business incubator was unable to pay back a similar loan.

In my view, the city should forgive the loan to the ICRCM. Residents could then move forward into this new, splendid future our private foundation shadow government has planned for us without Greensboro’s Civil War there to bloody the pristine white concrete at LeBauer Park. !

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