“I'm worried this could destroy us. We've already lost one of our biggest supporters,” said Hana Stith, who co-founded the African/African-American Historical Society Museum in 2000 but insists she was fired as curator of the facility at 436 E. Douglas St. in December and locked out of the facility last week by board members who have usurped power that is not rightfully theirs.
But Pompia Durril – who may or may not be chairman of the board – insists the museum's directors simply accepted Stith's offer to retire before making the deceptively low-key announcement in January that Harding High School graduate John Aden had been named director in order to improve programs and boost its use of the Internet.
Stith understands only too well how ironic it is for a museum dedicated to the often-tumultuous history of blacks in Fort Wayne to be creating conflict of its own while drawing attention from the legacy left by others. And she's still willing to step down in six months if it will help restore the peace – but not until she's satisfied the museum rests upon solid ground instead of the shifting sand of personality conflicts, power plays and dueling legal opinions.
Just as hindsight reveals many of history's wars could have been predicted and possibly prevented, the museum's recent public turmoil was a long time coming. In November, The News-Sentinel reported how the museum had only 2,000 visitors per year and spent $9,000 more than it earned in 2011. At the time, Durril criticized Stith for revealing that the board had considered closing temporarily to improve programs and exhibits. Stith said she wanted the board to boost fundraising efforts instead.
“I said, 'If you won't help, I'll have to go to the community,' and they got mad at me,” said Stith, adding that she had talked about retiring before the end of 2012 but never officially resigned. The rancor led to a meeting earlier this month at which 64 of the museum's 146 members voted to replace the old board with a new one. Durril's side insists the vote was invalid because it lacked a proper quorum; Stith and her attorney disagree.
Black History Month deserves better, obviously. Which brings us to the Rev. Michael Latham.
Latham, pastor of Renaissance Baptist Church and former president of the local NAACP chapter, is hosting a meeting Tuesday to heal a rift with some of his fellow African-American pastors and to seek support for his plan to honor the city's black “founders.” He believes a greater understanding of the positive contributions blacks have made to Fort Wayne might promote not only self-esteem among blacks but improved race relations in general.
“I disliked white people for a long time,” Latham acknowledged – antipathy that faded in part once he studied his own family's biracial history. “A lot of blacks don't know history, but you have to know where you came from. Our kids are doing things they shouldn't do, sometimes out of anger. This might help.”
Latham wants part of southeast Fort Wayne declared a “Black American Historical District” that would recognize the contributions of key individuals or groups through a series of signs and monuments placed along streets or in parks. He'll even have to win over Stith, who believes the targeted neighborhoods don't support the idea.
Despite the recent controversy, Latham knows black history is also a story of reconciliation. So he's invited several African-American pastors to the meeting to seek their support for the historical district but also to apologize. As I reported last May, Latham has been critical of some pastors' alleged failure to confront peers who misbehave and for being “concerned about themselves and money, not the community.”
In other words, Latham hopes to achieve what the museum unfortunately still lacks: the kind of peace that may or may not be good reading, but is nevertheless an important part of history.
Stith has earned more respect from some board members than she has received, but even she acknowledges the museum could benefit from improved professional historical and business expertise. And I wish Latham well, too, so long as he can convince the public — not government officials — to underwrite his dream.
But no matter what happens, history itself will endure in spite of our human shortcomings — or maybe even because of them.
To learn moreWhat: Meeting to explain "Black American Historical District" proposal
When: 5 p.m. Feb. 26
Where: Southgate Pizza Hut, 4911 S. Calhoun Street.
Free pizza for first 40 people courtesy of Pizza Hut.