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Great Plains Black History Museum Asks for Public Input on its Latest Evolution

February 5, 2011 7 comments

The Great Plains Black Museum at the Webster T...

The Great Plains Black Museum at the Webster Telephone Exchange Building. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This February 2011 story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is my latest about the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha. Referenced in the article are some of the many travails that have dogged this organization. You can find out more about the challenges the museum has faced in three earlier stories posted on this blog. For the longest time the only news coming out of the museum was bad news.  But as my new piece suggests there are some positive things happening now having to do with new leadership in place that might finally provide the direction needed to move forward with long overdue change and much delayed progress.  I will continue following this story and as new developments occur and as I report on them I will share the posts here.

Great Plains Black History Museum Asks for Public Input on its Latest Evolution

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

The new Great Plains Black History Museum board is putting its stamp on the long troubled organization by holding the first in a planned series of community forums about its future direction.

On February 11, GPBHM chairman Jim Beatty will lead a 2-4 p.m. forum at the Lakeside (Family Housing Services Advisory) building, 24th and Lake, to, as a flyer describes, “discuss a variety of topics…on your mind.”

Beatty, president of Omaha-based consulting firm NCS International, is aware attempts to move forward necessarily entail addressing the dysfunction of the museum’s recent past. The City of Omaha has declared the museum building at 2213 Lake Street uninhabitable, resulting in the doors being closed. The mandated repairs have not been made due to lack of funds.

When he assumed his roles as board chair and museum executive director last fall he found the coffers virtually empty, with no members and no donors. The museum’s not been awarded a grant in years.

“There isn’t a lot of money there,” he says. “I think something like $29 in the checking account.”

Previous chair and director Jim Calloway tried maintaining the building and collection by paying for utility bills, spot roof-window fixes and storage sites out of his own pocket.

Calloway, the son of founder Bertha Calloway, was criticized for his management of funds and for storing the museum’s historical research materials in a non-climate controlled trailer.

“That by no means meets my criteria or any museum’s criteria for proper storage of documents and artifacts,” says Beatty. “That may have been done in the past out of some level of desperation, another indication the leadership of the museum was not operating with the best intentions of handling its business properly.”

Jim Beatty on the right with Othello Meadows

 

 

 

Yet, Beatty praises Calloway’s passion. “I think the public needs to understand Jim was trying to keep his mother’s dream alive,” he says, “and that’s not to be taken lightly.” He also credits Calloway for reaching an agreement with the Nebraska State Historical Society to take temporary custodial care of the materials. The documents and photographs are housed at the NSHS in Lincoln, where cataloging’s been done.

Beatty says the materials will remain there until a suitable home is found. While the GPBHM seeks support to address issues at its Lake Street building and the possible addition of a new site, it seeks to make itself and the collection visible.

“The museum has a very valuable collection the public has not seen that it needs to see or at least needs to understand what does exist,” he says. “We have a challenge to save the building but we have to make certain people understand the building does not dictate the museum. The museum is a compilation of resources, artifacts, documents, and that work needs to go on. Once we have properly inventoried everything, then we can begin to identify opportunities to properly display that.”

He’s thinking outside the box.

“The museum can and will have to function without having that building as its base. We can have exhibits at schools, at corporations, at Crossroads, Westroads, at various events.”

He envisions a revamped, interactive website featuring the collection online.

“So, for a time it may well be a museum without walls, and that’s OK. I am in discussions with an entity to provide a facility. Until we get a space, I think we have to be creative — we have to truly demonstrate the museum is alive and well.”

He acknowledges the GPBHM has not communicated its story well. “It’s unfortunate the community just has not known what the museum is doing. I believe there’s a number of rumors out there that need to be corrected.” One he wants to dispel is that the Lake Street building is owned by the Calloways.

“A lawsuit ultimately decided in favor of the museum gave title to the building to the museum as opposed to the family,” he says.

He vows greater transparency.

“People want to know what the bottom-line is. They want to have an assurance the money is being used wisely, accounted for properly and in a timely fashion, and that the books are open. Folks want to know, and in my opinion they deserve to know.”

A capital campaign will eventually be launched.

“Omaha’s a very philanthropic community. I believe we’ll be able to raise money. I’m very confident in that. How much depends on how the funders view the credibility of the organization. That starts with the board of directors,” he says. “We have to have people that bring resources and credibility.”

Toward that end two stalwart Omaha business-community figures — Frank Hayes and Ken Lyons — recently joined the board.

“We need the involvement of the government too,” he says. “The city, county and state all are potential funders at some level.”

More than anything, he wants the museum lifted out of its dormancy.

“There is a sadness this is happened but at the same time there is a hope something can be done to revive the museum and put it on a proper track. My discussions in the community confirm people want to see a vibrant museum that is relevant, involved, proactive, well managed, respected.”

Beatty, who chaired the Durham Museum board, says, “It’s certainly a challenge but one I feel my previous involvement in the community has prepared me well for. I’m unafraid of it, I welcome it.”

Burden of Dreams: The Trials of Omaha’s Black Museum

December 14, 2010 2 comments

The Great Plains Black Museum at the Webster T...

Image via Wikipedia

For more than a decade now I have been writing about the travails of the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in an abridged version in 2006. You will find two other major stories I’ve mine about the museum on this blog. One is from 1996 and it profiles the museum’s founder, Bertha Calloway.  I called the piece, Bertha’s Battle. The other piece appeared in early 2010 and documented some of the past problems the organization has endured and broke news about some new, promising developments concerning the organization.  I will soon be writing new stories about the museum based on even more recent developments and so look for new posts related to this subject in the coming weeks.

Burden of Dreams: The Trials of Omaha’s Black Museum

©by Leo Adam Biga

This is the story about the rise and fall of a once proud institution.

It began in 1975 with great promise. The Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha set itself apart as an African-American cultural institution devoted to revealing the rich past of black settlers and soldiers and sojourners in the Midwest. Through displays and lectures it taught a history long withheld from blacks and whites alike. One largely suppressed or omitted or ignored in schools. By making black history a cause for affirmation and revision, the museum staged its own semi-militant Black Power movement. With its insistent black heritage focus, the museum gave anyone who passed through its doors or saw its touring exhibitions and presentations, a history lesson unlike any other. It was a revelation.

There was always the hope the museum could serve as an anchor and destination stop in the historic North 24th Street district.

But over time the museum’s devolved into a troubled place beset by all manner of problems. Many revolve around embattled interim director Jim Calloway, whose strident ways make him persona non grata with potential funders. Ultimately, though, the museum’s suffered from the lack of a consistent revenue stream, a well-connected, well-heeled board and inadequate record keeping.

A solution to some problems may be in the works via a proposed new partnership between the museum and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Grand visions for the museum have surfaced before only never to be realized. It’s a familiar story to Calloway’s ailing mother, Omaha civil rights activist and black history buff Bertha Calloway, who forged the museum from her own imagination and and determination. She’s seen and heard it all. Plans. Promises. Proposals. Proclamations. Architectural renderings for a refurbished museum never got past the conceptual stage. What should have been a shining moment — a book co-authored by her and historian Alonzo Smith about Nebraska’s black history, featuring images and data drawn from the museum’s collection — turned debacle. There was a dispute with the publisher and with a pair of corporate sponsors. The museum did not accept the publication, which is full of errors. Most of the books went unsold and sit in the office of an Omaha attorney. Questions linger over how the museum spent the corporate dollars dedicated to the project.

She harbored a dream for an an archives and interpretive center on the city’s north side that chronicled the seldom told story of black pioneers. With help from her late husband James T. Calloway and fellow members of the Negro Historical Society she founded, the GPBHM was born in 1975 as an incorporated non-profit. The museum opened in 1976 at its present site, the three-story Webster Telephone Exchange building, at 2213 Lake Street. The once slated-for-condemnation structure was saved from the rubble heap when the couple purchased it for a song. The 1906 brick structure designed by famed architect Thomas Kimball was home to the Nebraska Telephone Company and, later, an Urban League community center, before being converted into apartments. After some revamping, it became, under Bertha Calloway’s watch, a storehouse and source of black pride.

 

Bertha Calloway

 

The Calloways got it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Behind the building’s impressive facade, however, lies a dilapidated structure, its distressed condition a mirror of the turmoil that’s characterized the museum’s governance the past decade. Poor health long ago forced Bertha Calloway to give up the reins to her son. She now resides in a north Omaha nursing home, her mind in and out of the mental fog that 1993 brain surgery left her in. Chronic seizures grip her.

For a long time now the museum itself has existed in limbo, not formally dissolved but floundering, its business conducted in shadows, its affairs in disarray, its displays rarely seen and its board comprised of a few old family friends, but no one with real money or influence. Over the past decade the GPBHM’s been closed more than it’s been open. From about 1998 to 2005, access to the museum and its collection was “by appointment only.” In 2003 the holdings — artifacts, photos, books and documents — were mostly emptied out of the century-old building and put in storage to protect them from water damage and other environmental hazards.

Occasional selections from the collection could be viewed in temporary/touring displays at off-site locations. For a long time, the Blue Lion Center at 24th and Lake reserved space for museum exhibits. When Nebraska Workforce Development located its headquarters there a few years ago, the museum was left homeless. For the past two years the collection’s largely been invisible, even to students and scholars. Since June, when the GPBHM hosted its last exhibit in the Webster building, the museum’s doors have been shut to all visitors, the gas and water turned off and the phone disconnected. This in lieu of badly needed repairs and the result of a then-pending lawsuit over who should retain possession of the building.

 

From GPBHM collection

 

For a time last summer a banner hung outside the front entrance read, Temporarily Closed for Renovation, although anyone with knowledge of the situation, then and now, understands the museum’s broke and no renovations are on the horizon.

To keep the museum viable and to care for his mother, Jim Calloway’s sacrificed his career as a business manager and exhausted his savings. He’s a nomad these days, working odd jobs to supplement his social security, staying in rental units, traveling by bus or bumming rides, scrounging for favors and loans.

“There were a couple years I paid myself a salary, but for the last couple years I haven’t got anything. On occasion, if we get a donation, I get a small portion of it to help me pay my bills. I’ve been evicted from two places. I just run around with my backpack and spend a lot of time down here,” he said sitting at a reference desk in the W. Dale Clark public library, where he’s a familiar figure. “I’ve basically gone broke trying to make sure everything’s stable. It’s just part of the deal.”

Today, the museum’s regarded as more symbol than reality. Rumors abound about not only the condition of the collection, but its disposition and whereabouts. There’s even talk holdings were sold on E-Bay or at auction. Calloway said nothing’s been sold online but some artifacts were sold at a Dino’s Storage auction held to recoup unpaid storage fees. He said he bought back most of the museum items on sale. The few he didn’t purchase, he added, “weren’t really of any great historical significance. They’re things that can be replaced.” He said the museum’s most prized possessions — photos, plus research documents prepared or compiled by his mother and others — remain untouched. He said there’s little monetary value to the photos and data, but much historical value.

“We have the most information of any museum on early blacks in this part of the country, including the homesteaders,” he said. “Every effort has been made to protect these important historical documents and photos.”

With the museum in crisis mode for so long now, the questions arising about it have undercut people’s faith in Calloway and in the institution. While he acknowledges mistakes, he said much of the doubt is unfounded speculation. “There’s so many misconceptions about what’s going on,” he said. “Maybe because we’re not open on a regular basis, that’s where those perceptions come from.” UNO Black Studies professor Larry Menyweather-Woods, a closer observer of the museum, said the public has “taken this so much without facts they don’t know what to believe.” Former Douglas County Board member Carole Woods-Harris said, “Very few people know what’s going on.”

Calloway tried laying to rest some of those concerns when, in early March, he showed a pair of visitors the holdings at two storage sites. One, situated on a patch of ground directly west of the museum building, is a 48-foot long metal storage trailer jammed with stuff. He owes thousands of dollars for the trailer’s use but he said the owner’s been “patient with me” thus far. Ironically, amid all the talk about the holdings — they’ve sat, albeit unseen and locked away, next to the museum “this whole time” The other site, a warehouse owned by a family supermarket chain, is a vast space leased to the museum for storing shelves, lights, signage, et cetera. The lease officially ended some time ago and the location’s continued use by the museum is on “a month by month basis,” although Calloway’s been told he may need to clear out the holdings by the end of May. He’s looking for a new spot.

 

 

 

Along nearly the entire length of one side of the trailer, stacked from floor to ceiling, are columns of cardboard conservation boxes containing documents on various topics of black culture and history. To illustrate the contents, Calloway removed two boxes, one labeled Black Cowboys and the other, Bob Gibson, each filled with articles, essays and notes on their subjects. The little known role of black cowboys is a major emphasis of the museum. Bertha Calloway’s own grandfather, George “Dotey Pa” Pigford was a cattle hand. The feats of black icons with local ties, like major league baseball hall of famer Bob Gibson, publisher Mildred Brown, black nationalist Malcolm X and civil rights activist John Markoe, are also museum staples.

If a proposed agreement with UNO to provide professional support is finalized, then Calloway said the museum’s holdings can, for the first time, be completely indexed or inventoried. “It’s mainly identifying what’s in these 200-plus boxes. It’s going to take a big effort by a lot of people and it’s going to take a lot of time,” he said.

Despite a recent court decision that found the GPBHM operates as a functional museum, public perception says something else. There’s a widespread assumption it is, in fact, a closed, failed institution with no clear future in sight. Calloway sees it differently. “The case we made before the judge” is that we’re an organization that’s struggling but that’s still trying to keep afloat. No, we’re not open right now, but we’re in the process of making a partnership” to stabilize and reopen it.

Perception can beget reality, however, as when funding approved for the beleaguered museum was pulled by the Omaha City Council and the Douglas County Board, when elected officials expressed concerns about its shaky financial house and its slow response or non-compliance in producing mandatory reports for review. Douglas County Board Chairman Mike Boyle said the museum failed to show how it spent past appropriations from that elected body. “When you’re getting funds from a government agency, you have to account for them. You have to show you spent it for the purposes for which it was given. That’s basic-101 stuff.” Boyle said. “If you don’t account for the funds, we’re certainly not going to give you any additional money, that’s for sure. That was his (Calloway’s) problem.”

Calloway concedes the museum’s record-keeping is inadequate. He said finding documents is complicated by the volume of items he must sift through in storage.

He said officials have tacitly given him the impression his leaving the museum is a condition of funding allocations. Officials contacted for this story deny any such stipulations. Calloway, though, fears he’s burned too many bridges along the way. He hopes his past isn’t held against the museum.

Little else but hope has kept the museum alive. That, and Calloway’s devotion to his mother’s dream, a devotion he’s perhaps carried to a fault by refusing to relinquish control, even during the 10 years when he cared for his mother in her home.

“I’ve always been very dedicated to her and, you know, I made a commitment to her that I’d keep her at home as long as possible,” he said. “But it did put the purpose of the museum behind 10 years. There may have been some times when I dropped the ball on things I should have been doing as far as progressing the museum forward. I probably should have allocated some authority to other individuals. I may have tried to take on too much at one time. But I didn’t know any other way. And I had a certain responsibility as a full-time caregiver. I wish I could have had that time to really dedicate to the museum because I think, to be honest with you, things wouldn’t be as bad off as they are now. But there wasn’t anyone else I had total confidence in that I could just give the key to and say, ‘Here…’

 

From GPBHM collection

 

If anything, Omaha photojournalist and longtime family friend Rudy Smith said, Calloway’s carried his devotion too far.

“He is not the bad guy. Jim’s being true to his mother’s wishes and desires. Everything Jim’s done has been to maintain the legacy his mother established. He’s not in it for the money. He’s not in it for glory or fame. The problem’s been with him giving it up. He would do anything and everything to keep it, and he has, from borrowing money from people knowing he couldn’t pay it back to pay bills, to going without eating to working part-time jobs, whatever it took. All because of his love for his mother and her dream. He came into this thing when the museum had no money, no followers, no members, no board of directors and virtually none of the records that Bert kept. Who knows where they are? He inherited a lot of things he had no control over. He’s been in this by himself.”

In recent years, Smith and others agree that Calloway’s miscalculations have left his own and the museum’s reputation tarnished to the point that all public funding for the GPBHM has been denied. Calloway admits making “a big mistake” when he twice turned down city Community Development Block Grant funding, once, in 2001, for $50,000 he rejected as too little to address infrastructure needs and again, in 2002, when he balked at an amended offer of $100,000 as also insufficient.

Calloway accused Omaha City Councilman Frank Brown of having museum funds diverted to the Love’s Jazz and Arts Center, a pet project of Brown’s. Brown denies it. Upon withdrawing the funds, the city offered Calloway this official explanation in a March 24, 2004 letter signed by James Thele, housing and community development manager: “As there will be further delays in the project, the City of Omaha will reallocate the FY 2001 Community Block Grant funds to other projects that have an immediate need.” The letter references “past due real estate taxes and special assessments” and “unpaid debts owed by” the museum and requests “a release allowing the City of Omaha to obtain a credit check” on it. “I encourage you to continue to resolve all financial and other issues.”

An April 13, 2004 letter gave the museum an extra 30 days to satisfy the city’s requests, only by then the city was asking for more extensive documentation. When Calloway didn’t respond, the funds went elsewhere.

“I gambled and lost. I take responsibility because I could have acted on it sooner,” Calloway said. “A hundred thousand dollars is a hundred thousand dollars. If I had it all to do over again I would probably have taken the money and got part of the work done and then lobbied for the rest. But at the time I felt they were throwing us carrots. They’ve got millions of dollars they’re spending on a lot of other projects and here we need at least $230,000 and they’re only throwing out $100,000. Just enough to get us in trouble.”

In a recent interview Thele said, “We had asked for information from the Great Plains Black Museum. They never provided it. That’s the problem. No matter who we work with we have certain documentation required by the federal government as well as by the City Law department in some cases. We have guidelines regarding how long we can keep letting that money sit. We’d certainly be glad to work with them again if they’d like to submit again.” He added the door’s not been closed on the museum. “Oh, no, not at all, it’s a wonderful building. We’d like to see the building preserved. It’s part of the history of north Omaha.”

Calloway feels whatever animosity he’s generated at City Hall stems from his fierce opposition to city-led redevelopment along North 24th Street. At the very time he held out for more money he led the Committee for the Preservation of Historic North Omaha Sites, which criticized, via letters, opinion pieces, fliers and demonstrations, city plans for North 24th Street as disrespectful of black heritage.

“I truly believe city politics are connected to the demise of the museum. Because of my continued opposition…we got the shaft. I pointed fingers. There’s no secret there’s no good blood between Frank Brown and I. Those kinds of issues, I’ve learned in a very hard way, you can’t put out there when asking people for money. My lesson is, in order to really play the game, you’ve got to kiss The Man’s butt every once in awhile. That politics is a nasty game and I’m not suited for it. I’m not a diplomat in that regard at all. I get pretty hard-headed sometimes. I find a lot of times that stubbornness about me gets me in trouble. I just don’t tolerate a bunch of bull. Even my mother continues to be defiant…She frequently tells me not to be ‘a sell-out to the bourgeois martini set.’”

UNO Black Studies professor Larry Menyweather-Woods said Calloway’s “made bad decisions” along the way. He’s said he’s even told Calloway straight up what others have said — “they don’t trust you and they tell me I’m a dang fool to trust you.”

One thing everybody agrees on is that if the museum is to have a future, Calloway must divorce himself from it — even though he’s invested more than a decade in it.

“With all the controversy that surrounds the museum and me, I know it’s in the best interests of the museum for me to step aside as soon as possible,” Calloway said. “My character has been assassinated to the point where, right now, it doesn’t do me any good to even think about continuing to try” and remain. “There’s so many questions swirling around that I’d be a detriment. I know that. It used to bother me quite a bit. It doesn’t bother me anymore because I know I’ve done the right thing by my mother and by other individuals who started this thing, and that’s to protect the holdings at all cost, and that’s what I’ve done. And so, I’m comfortable with it.”

A February 22 Douglas County Court ruling may clear the way for a working relationship between the museum and the UNO Department of Black Studies, which could give the GPBHM a whole new image. Calloway and UNO officials have been conferring for months now. Brokering the deal is Larry Menyweather-Woods, who approached Calloway about the university working with the museum. Terms of a formal agreement are under review. The partnership is contingent on Calloway cutting official ties to the museum, although he would act as a consultant.

UNO would provide professional and student services to help: catalog the collection; identify funding sources and apply for grant monies; and advise on the formation of a new board of advisors and board of directors and on staff hires.

Menyweather-Woods said partnerships between black studies departments and black museums exist across the country. He and UNO College of Arts and Sciences Dean Sheldon Hendricks say such an arrangement only makes sense here given the scholarship the university can apply to the research trove the museum possesses. “Those are natural collaborations,” Hendricks said. In no way, Menyweather-Woods said, will UNO take over the museum. It’s more about guiding it. “It’s about the black studies department being intrinsically involved in helping reestablish the museum as a viable research center,” he said.

Calloway said any new leadership is likely to “fit more easily and comfortably into that atmosphere” of public-private politics and hoop-jumping he loathes so much.

Historian Alonzo Smith, a former consultant with the museum, embraces any help the museum can get. “They have all this material, but they really need a different institution…a different organization…” to maintain it. “A lot of the collection’s never really been cataloged. I remember going through all these photographs that were in boxes and they had no names or labels on them. Things were not done in a professional manner. It’s time to take it out of their (the Calloways’) hands, so somebody else can pick up with it. It would be great if that could happen.”

Rudy Smith said whatever happens, the museum needs “a new direction, new leadership, an infusion of money and a five or ten year plan. It does need to be turned over to an organization or a group that can help revive it, restore its integrity and do something with it. It needs someone with a big vision…a big vision beyond Omaha. It has to have some linkage to the national black museums association. It’s going to take a lot of work, a lot of money.”

Just how much money depends on who you talk to. Building repairs and retrofitting estimates vary from a few hundred thousand dollars to address the most pressing needs to a few million dollars to completely overhaul the building. There’s also been talk of a new structure adjacent or connected to the existing museum.

While a UNO association would give the GPBHM more credibility, many issues remain, the most basic being a need for sizable resources, and UNO is adamant about not committing money to the project. Besides repairs-renovations, funds must be secured for an operating budget and to cover salaries for a professional staff that curates and preserves the collection and manages the museum.

A lack of dollars has always plagued the institution. The Calloways didn’t have much of their own and they’ve resisted, as Jim Calloway put it, aligning themselves with “the fat cats” who can do the most good, but want the most say.

 

 

Whatever happened to the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha is a question on many people’s minds in the black community. This once celebrated institution at 2213 Lake Street carved a niche for itself as a center for illuminating a history otherwise unseen or untold. Opened in 1976, the museum’s archives and displays highlighted the role blacks played in shaping and settling Nebraska and chronicled the many triumphs and tribulations they experienced here.

The museum is often referred to in the past tense these days because of a complex set of circumstances and series of events that have, in effect, locked away all that history from public view for much of the past decade. Even though a recent court ruling denied a title claim that asserted the museum corporation no longer operates as a museum in the building at 2213 Lake, the reality is that the building has been closed since last June. The official reason given for the closure was pending renovations, but unofficially the museum shut everything down, just as it earlier pulled everything out, in the midst of the lawsuit and assorted financial problems, including debts and liens.

The interior of the split-level building, which sits mostly empty, is in disrepair. Both roofs leak and one’s in danger of collapsing. When the museum was still open on a semi-regular or by-appointment-only basis, the back of the structure was closed-off out of liability concerns. Building engineers have decreed much of the building unsafe for public tours. Three years ago, the museum holdings were hurriedly put in storage, where they remain, to protect them from water damage.

It’s not what founder and director emeritus Bertha Calloway had in mind. She devoted herself to the museum and its mission with the same fervor she gave to the civil rights cause. She explained why in a 1996 Reader interview: “People must see black history in order for the images they have of black people to change. That’s what our museum is all about,” she said, “It’s about revealing a history that’s been withheld.” She was driven in part to start the museum so that she could correct the one-sided history taught in schools. “The history I was forced to learn and hated just consisted of white history. I knew there had to some other kind where black people fit in other than slavery. Even when my children were growing up there wasn’t anything in the public schools about African-Americans.” She vowed then “that my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren know that African-Americans were involved in the settlement of this country and the settlement of the West in particular. That’s important because it makes you feel like you belong.”

Malcolm X Birthsite Foundation board member and former Omaha Public Library staffer Vicky Parks said the woman behind the museum did great things for her community.

“Mrs. Calloway gave me and people of my generation a sense of our history and a sense of our culture…Kwanza, Black History Month, Juneteenth, the black cowboys, the black homesteaders, the Tuskegee Airmen…She gave all that to me and more. Notice I say SHE gave all those gifts, not the Omaha Public Schools, not the university. I had a black studies minor in college, but that was just a refresher compared to what she gave me.”

 

 

The way Parks sees it, the museum could bridge “the disconnect between the younger and older people right now. When you see the dispersal and the fragmentation of the black community, I think African-American children need a sense of self more than ever, and the museum provided that. In our youth today there’s not the sense of black pride and black nationalism my generation had, and it shows in our voting patterns and in our living patterns and in what things we’re committed to. The community needs the museum more than ever now.”

What began with great fanfare as a cultural landmark in those early years has unraveled over time into a private and public battleground to secure support and fend off critics and creditors. No clear solution or resolution has emerged even though there’s great interest in seeing it return to glory.

“I just think it’s a valuable asset to the community and we need to do what we can to preserve it,” said attorney and former Omaha City Councilman Brenda Council.

From the very start, the GPBHM operated on a too-small budget for the scope of Bertha Calloway’s big dreams. She and others always felt the museum’s been slighted in the funding it receives compared to other area museums.

“She does not get the respect and the support she deserves. I’m truly saddened that we have not as a community chosen to provide the financial resources to institutionalize that museum,” said Parks. “I hope the museum does become an institution…in every sense of the word. Institutions are perpetual. They last from generation to generation. They don’t fold because of one person. Look at the results of the museum not being supported by the total community. I think it’s sad the whole community hasn’t seen the value in continuing her legacy. When black people come from other places they want to see what black people are accomplishing here. They want to see the contributions and the struggles and the sacrifices of our people. What is it that they get to see?”

For years the museum did at least enjoy the support of some major funding bodies, such as the now defunct United Arts Omaha, and received tourist revenue allocations from the city and county. Its 1976 start-up was facilitated by a $101,000 federal Bicentennial Commission grant. About the time the corporate giving climate tightened, leaving the museum without a steady source of monies for operating expenses, much less repairs, she suffered a setback when she underwent brain surgery for what turned out to be a benign tumor. Her memory impaired, she gave more and more responsibility to her son.

That’s when things began to get away from her and the small coterie of  confidantes she trusted, most notably her son, who moved from Lincoln back to Omaha to assist his mother. As her faculties diminished, Jim Calloway assumed the museum’s day to day operations. Eventually, she was declared mentally incompetent to handle her own affairs and in 1997 a court-appointed attorney, Karen Tibbs, was installed as her guardian-conservator.

Perpetually short of funds, the museum’s typically put off overdue repairs or gerrymandered fixes in place of serious rehab. A second-story false floor and the L-shaped, split-level building’s two roofs — a flat tar roof in back and a gabled tile roof in front — have deteriorated to such an extent that they must be replaced. Additionally, new windows, tuck-pointing and other weatherproofing/climate-control improvements are needed. There are also plumbing, heating/cooling and electrical upgrades needed.

Then, when the museum was in line for Community Development Block Grant funding to pay for some of the outstanding repair work, Jim Calloway refused a 2001 city allocation of $50,000 as inadequate and even after the allocation was increased to $100,000 in 2003 he stalled, and in a fit of pride, held out for more. When stipulations, in the way of financial accountings, were placed on the museum getting the funds, Calloway did not comply and the money offer was rescinded. When, around the same time, he similarly did not satisfy Douglas County Board requests for financial records, county appropriations were withheld.

 

From GPBHM collection

 

Calloway’s exchanged harsh words with public officials, one of whom refers to him as “a negative person.Those kinds of missteps by Calloway have cost he and the museum dearly. No public funds have been forthcoming since then. He is either unwilling or unable to provide the financial statements in question. There’s talk that some public officials and some private individual have made it known they will not fund/back the museum unless Calloway’s gone or until he satisfies demands for full, accurate accountings.

One financial crisis after another’s dogged the museum. There are some $10,000 in unpaid bills. There are outstanding tax liens. In recent years Calloway’s failed to file for the museum’s tax exempt status, which found him scrambling to scrape up the cash. He raised what was owed before, but he’s well behind on the most recent taxes due — $3,750 and counting in tax and interest.

“My fault. There’s no question about that,” he said, adding the building’s tax certificate is held by an investor who has no designs on the property itself except to collect interest on the taxes owed. Menyweather-Woods has negotiated a payment plan with the investor.

Squabbles, accusations and allegations, both inside and outside the family, have further eroded confidence in the museum. Calloway and his sister Bonita are at odds over who owns the museum holdings. She asserts they’re the property of the family. He maintains they belong to the museum corporation and the community.

Museum advocate Larry Menyweather-Woods, an ordained minister and a professor in the Department of Black Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, summed up the contentiousness and controversy by saying, “There’s enough mess to go around. This is a vicious game being played, OK? I’m so tired of this conniving, back-stabbing when it ain’t necessary.”

It doesn’t stop there, Calloway’s embroiled in legal disputes with Tibbs, who had him evicted from one of his mother’s properties. A March 25 Probate Court hearing before Judge Samuel Caniglia considered his motion to remove her as his mother’s guardian-conservator. “Her performance as guardian-conservator has been subpar all the way,” Calloway said. “This whole business with the museum was not necessary. One of the problems with her is she shoots from the hip a lot. She doesn’t do her research.”

Tibbs challenged the deed to the museum building, contending a clause in the title Bertha and James Calloway signed over to the non-profit Great Plains Black Museum Archives and Interpretive Center, Inc. requires the structure revert back to Bertha Calloway’s ownership should it stop being used as a museum. In her brief, Tibbs asserted the building no longer filled that function. Jim Calloway contested her arguments in a brief filed by his attorney William Gallup. In a January 17 trial in Douglas County District Court, Judge Robert Burkhard heard testimony from witnesses on both sides. His decision found that while the institution “may have been somewhat loosely operated as a corporation…the building and the property…had always been used as a museum…possibly somewhat sporadically at times…but that does not mean that it ceased to be used as a museum.”

According to Tibbs, who said she represents the best interests of her client, “The decision is that the museum is an operational museum, so maybe it is, but nobody else in the community knows that. The building’s not been open. I can’t get in. Nobody can. You cannot go to that place, open the door and go inside to see an exhibit, and you haven’t been able to do that for some time. Ask anybody.” Tibbs said she’s not sure what her next move, if any, will be. “I do know it is unfortunate that it all came down to this. I think Jim (Calloway) is trying to do the best he can with what he has, but he just won’t let it go. Maybe I just won’t let it go.”

Even if Tibbs’ challenge had been upheld, Calloway said his mother’s Medicaid nursing home credit, which limits personal assets, may have forced the sale of the building. Whoever retains title to it, he said, would be stuck with huge liabilities. Meanwhile, Tibbs said she had investors lined up to purchase the building and/or pay for repairs in the event she gained control of it.

Calloway sees the decision as opening the door for the museum to have a fresh start in the building he and his mother fought so hard to save. “I’m happy with the way things turned out,” he said, noting its loss “would break my mother’s heart. She’s got a lot of sentimental attachment to the building. It does have a lot of historical significance.”

That fresh start may come in the form of a partnership with the UNO Department of Black Studies, where professor Larry Menyweather-Woods is brokering an association between the university and the museum for UNO to provide professional and student services. He feels “the uniqueness” of the museum and its emphasis on blacks in the Midwest affords scholars like himself and his colleagues a research boon and their expertise, in turn, can benefit the museum.

“We have a great deal of interest in being able to work with that museum,” said UNO College of Arts and Sciences Dean Sheldon Hendricks. “Many of the materials in their archives have not been cataloged or otherwise gone over for historical value. Our historians are particularly interested in getting a look at it. And we also see it as a great opportunity for our students to have both a service learning experience and an experience working directly with historically significant artifacts.”

Calloway, too, sees it as a win-win proposition. He welcomes the chance to put the collection in “responsible hands” and he embraces UNO’s “passion for history.”

“I hope the museum can get back on its feet and become something we can be proud of,” Vicky Parks said.

Tibbs said where “nobody’s” been willing to work with Calloway in light of the museum’s problems, “maybe they will now. I don’t know. UNO’s name would lend more credibility. Clearly, that would lead the community to feel comfortable.”

None of this changes the fact there’s still no money for repairs to the museum’s century-old building. UNO is adamant about not committing any funds to the museum. Menyweather-Woods said UNO’s involvement is not tied to the museum continuing to be housed in the building, adding there are plenty of “campuses that would be excited to have it.” Even Calloway suggests the structure is not a must for the museum’s future, saying it could just as easily “continue on” elsewhere and that “other locations might be more suitable” and “make better business sense.”

While Calloway said engineers’ reports confirm the structure “is salvageable and worth saving,” he also fears the city may condemn it if something isn’t done soon.

Others view the recent court decision as validation that Calloway’s remained, as Omaha photojournalist and museum supporter Rudy Smith put it, “true to his mother” by keeping the museum alive, if even on little more than a wish and a prayer. “It should be seen as a redeeming part of his integrity,” Menyweather-Woods said. “He’s always argued the same position. He’s always insisted it was operating as a museum. So, I think that says a lot right there.”

The saga of the museum’s plight, from lawsuits to funding woes to mismanaged assets, sends the wrong message to funders, who see an irresponsible institution that’s “out of control,” said Rudy Smith.

The Calloways have in some ways been their own worst enemies by publicly calling out Omaha for its stingy support and by rashly announcing makeovers, expansions, capital campaigns and board reorganizations without firm plans and follow through. Nothing’s ever come of these pronouncements except mistrust and acrimony.

The museum’s 30-year life has always been one of struggle. Part of the struggle stems from the Calloways’ wary, insular, defensive posture that’s valued protecting their independence above all else. They simply will not cow-tow to or play ball with the big shots. Admirable as that maverick streak may be, it’s also alienated the museum and cost it valuable allies. Taken together with its lack of a professional staff and its incomplete accountings, questions and suspicions are bound arise.

It’s no wonder then, as Jim Calloway noted, “There’s always been some sort of conflict with the city on funding.” His mother managed all aspects of the museum’s business, including the books, and since her illness there’s been no one to pick up the slack. Few outsiders have been brought into this inner circle.

“She’s always been very leery of having certain types of individuals involved in the operation. She’s never been one who goes out to cocktail parties or fancy dinners. That’s not who she is and that’s not who I am, either. She’s always been more interested in getting grassroots individuals involved. Unfortunately, the powers that be like to see some substantial, high profile figures on your board. They want you to change to their ways, so she’s steered clear of them,” Calloway said.

 

Rudy Smith

 

According to Rudy Smith, “She did not want the museum to fall into the hands of the corporate community. She was concerned if other people took it over the black community would lose treasures and no longer have access to their own history. It could be rewritten, retold, sold and maligned. Bert’s always felt that way. She told me she always wanted it in the hands of black people.” He added that the resources required for restoring the museum may necessitate bringing on board “people outside the black community that can do that.”

Bertha Calloway turned inward when she felt “betrayed” by a series of dealings with the suit-and-tie set who reneged on promises, said Rudy Smith. A fiasco with a book she co-authored on African-American history in Nebraska, along with other imbroglios, embittered her. “That’s why she became somewhat of a recluse and hermit and would not let anybody close to her. A lot of opportunities were lost because of betrayal and lack of trust and stubbornness.” Menyweather-Woods said she rejected proposals that not only could have financed a new facility, unburdening the museum of its albatross of a building, but strengthened the board, supplementing or replacing the current roster of cronies.

Alonzo Smith, a former consultant to the museum, said both the strength and weakness of the GPBHM is the grassroots mentality Bertha Calloway instilled and that Jim Calloway perpetuated.

“She’s not a museum professional. She’s not a curator. She’s not an archivist. She’s not an arts administrator. She’s not a historian. But she has a love on a subject and she has a love for people in the community,” said Alonzo Smith, who collaborated with her on the 1998 book An Illustrated History of African-Americans in Nebraska. “She really took it and made it into a community institution. It was a wonderful community institution. But she’s a strong-minded lady who found it difficult to work with other people. She would listen and say, ‘Thank you very much, but I’m going to go ahead and do what I’m going to do.’” I even put her in touch with a group called the African-American Museums Association. They do a needs assessment, which she really could have used to really get some big time grant money, but she didn’t want to relinquish financial and administrative control to a board.”

 

Alonzo Smith

 

He said a reluctance to form alliances or share governance “is not just an African-American thing. It happens with community-family museums all over the country.” While Smith admires Jim Calloway’s loyalty to “his mom in trying to take care of her and the museum,” he says, “it’s beyond his capacity. He can’t handle it. It’s a sad story. That museum was her life’s work and to see it decline the way it has…”

Rudy Smith doesn’t blame Jim Calloway for spoiling his mother’s dream. He faults a larger culprit, saying, “The community failed her.”

Despite all the headaches and bad feelings, Jim Calloway doesn’t regret his museum odyssey. “The experience of being with my mother during that 10 years is something I would never trade. I just wouldn’t. Because we got to know each other so well during that period of time, it was worth it to me,” he said.

He looks forward to the day when the museum is back on course. With UNO as a potential steward, he expects to oversee a transition that will ensure: the collection is cataloged; the research materials are accessible; the displays refurbished and open year-round for viewing; and the museum’s good name restored. “After everything gets in place with the university, we’re going to lobby real hard and it’s going to be for a lot more than $100,000. We’ve got a lot of time to make up for. With different people steering it, I’m sure they’re going to have some progress. The city knows how important that museum is to the community.”

One thing there’s consensus on about the museum is that its founder, Bertha Calloway, is a community pillar whose dream should be fulfilled.

“We have no intention of forgetting Bertha Calloway and the members of the Negro Historical Society who put that place like it was,” said Menyweather-Woods.

As the antagonist in all this, attorney Karen Tibbs said, “At the end of the day my responsibility is that her dream and her money be realized. Bertha Calloway’s. Not Bonita Calloway’s. Not Jim Calloway’s. I’m not going away.”

No one knows more than Jim Calloway what the burden of that dream has cost. “More than a dream, really, it’s a mandate from my mother.”

Long and Winding Saga of the Great Plains Black History Museum Takes a New Turn

December 14, 2010 Leave a comment

 

The Great Plains Black Museum at the Webster T...

The Great Plains Black Museum at the Webster Telephone Exchange Building. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

In some ways, the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha,Neb. is a symbol for the African-American experience in this place. African-Americans have had a presence in Omaha for generations now and their accomplishments are legion. Unfortunately, a disproportionate number of African-Americans here, as in the America overall, live in poverty and are unemployed or underemployed and struggle with all manner of health issues.  The museum owns a much shorter history but it too can point to a fine record of accomplishment that unfortunately is blemished by a long litany of issues that have kept if from fully reaching its potential. The following story appeared in an abridged version in The Reader (www.thereader.com) in early 2010, but I am posting here in its entirety. Four years before I wrote a similarly epic piece about the museum and its travails for the same newspaper.  I will be posting that earlier story soon.  In the coming months I will also be writing anew about the museum, whose story of struggles and aspirations continues.

NOTE: My blog also features a story I did in 1996 on the museum’s founder, Bertha Calloway.  I called it, Bertha’s Battle.

Long and Winding Saga of the Great Plains Black History Museum Takes a New Turn

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of this story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

In a tumultous decade for the Great Plains Black History Museum, its doors closed and its funding ceased. After years of turmoil, however, the organization may be taking tentative steps toward a sustainable future.

Its leaky, unsound, 103-year-old building at 2213 Lake St. has been off-limits to the public. Even before city code inspectors deemed it uninhabitable, executive director Jim Calloway moved the museum collections into storage to avoid damage. The Reader confirmed boxed archives have been in a rented metal storage container in back of the building, with artifacts and display items in remote warehouses.

The son of founder Bertha Calloway, he’s struggled keeping the family nonprofit afloat after illness forced his mother to step down some eight years ago. With few exceptions, the museum’s estimated 100,000 documents and hundreds of artifacts and educational materials have been unavailable to scholars and the public. The fallout of all this? The museum has lost face in the community and a building of architectural-historical significance has further deteriorated through inaction.

 

 

Bertha Calloway

 

 

This once proud organization has become the object of disappointment and skepticism, its National Register of Historic Places home reduced to a shell and its mission unrealized. The archival collection comprising it’s greatest glory — the seldom seen black history Bertha Calloway compiled — has languished under benign neglect.

Yet recent developments are providing new hope for the beleagured museum and its endangered holdings. The building’s and the archives’ ultimate fate remain clouded, but a clear vision may be coming into focus. The question is how to attain it.

On February 23, 180-plus archival boxes containing voluminous research documents, letters, photographs and other materials were removed from the storage bin and onto a truck for transport to the Nebraska State Historical Society in Lincoln. The transfer’s part of a one-year custodial agreement between the society and museum. The NSHS will provide a secure, environmentally-regulated space for inventorying and indexing the archives. Some minimal conservation work will be done as well.

There’s more. Representatives of Heritage Nebraska and the National Trust for Historic Preservation toured the Lake St. building March 5.

“We conducted a site visit of the property,” said Laurie Richards, Eastern Field Representative with Heritage Nebraska, an affiliate of the Trust. “The building is in immediate need of stabilization. We are interested in the historical significance of the Thomas Kimball building — a very significant building for the neighborhood and entire community of Omaha. There may be some funding through the Trust to assist with some of the organization’s needs, but we have to do further research. We will also help them explore other possible avenues of financial assistance.”

Earlier, a team of Omaha architects and engineers led by Michael Alley did an extensive analysis of the building’s most pressing needs. A master plan for renovation and new construction is on the drawing board.

Additionally, the museum has reorganized what’s widely been considered an ineffectual board to include new blood from the African-American and majority communities. “Some of the names are very influential people and they will do a great job. We also have a new board of advisers,” said Jim Calloway. “The next step to get things rolling,” he said, is a capital campaign.

“I feel better right now about things than I have in a long time,” he said. “The thing I’m most happy about is when senior officials from the State Historical Society pulled out a few of those archival boxes and were just blown away by what was in there. They were extremely impressed and pleased to see everything was still intact, because rumors of its disappearance had floated throughout the community. They were a bit surprised, too, at the condition of everything considering it wasn’t in a climate-controlled environment.”

For Calloway, it’s vindication of sorts. “I think it’s a good time to get straight with the public because rumors were floating that things were sold on eBay. It’s given me a little relief, too, because I’ve had to walk around for five or six years with this thing hanging over my head about me selling off the collection. It hasn’t been comfortable at all.”

With the building and collections inaccessible, speculation ran rampant about the state of the historical archives. One-of-kind memoirs and letters, for example, relate to black homesteading families. Historian Tekla Agbala “Ali” Johnson of Lincoln, Neb. is working with the collection in association with the NSHS. She said it is a prized cache.

“Strictly dealing with the history of African-Americans in the West, the collection is the largest dedicated to African-American people, period, I’ve worked with. Just in terms of size, it’s important,” said Johnson. “This is a fabulous and valuable collection and it has the potential to be a world-class archive.”

Johnson, an Omaha native who was an intern under Bertha Calloway, is impressed by how many families “came forward and deposited” personal remnants of history with Bertha. “Overwhelmingly she had their trust and people gave her things they wouldn’t give anybody else. She collected very,very private stories, oral histories, all the way to documenting the African-American cowboys in her own family. I cannot tell you how thrilled and honored I am to be able to process this collection.”

She said the “extremely well-documented” archives hold the potential for new insights into many aspects of African-American life in Omaha and greater Nebraska.

In terms of relevance, she said, “It has implications for a deeper understanding of the civil rights movement, the black music industry and black social clubs and organizations in the Midwest.” Johnson, who’s combed through but a fraction of the boxes, said she makes discoveries each work session. “In the very near future we’ll know exactly what we have. I’m making very good progress.” “I’m sure we’re going to come across a lot of really good information we didn’t have, so it’s very exciting from that standpoint,” said NSHS associate director of library archives, Andrea Faling.

 

 

Tekla Ali Johnson

 

 

Although Bertha was not a degreed historian, Johnson said she was nonetheless a “scholar and researcher. She truly put her life’s work in this. It is truly amazing.”

The archives were gotten to just in time. “They were beginning to erode,” said Johnson. More than 200 archival boxes, many overstuffed and broken, were stacked like cord wood in the container. Not everything was taken by the NSHS.

Calloway tried assuring the public of the collections’ integrity, but many questioned if they’d been compromised. Fueling the fires were assertions made by his sister and an attorney, who sought to wrest control of the building and collections from him.

With the archives now in the temporary care of a reputable organization, concerns about the materials may be alleviated. Faling said on a scale of 1 to 10 the mostly paper materials are in “slightly below average” condition — “maybe in the 4 to 5 range, but that’s just a subjective appraisal.” She said the lack of climate controls resulted in detrimental, not devastating temperature and humidity fluctuations and some mold. “I have definitely seen worse,” she said. “We’ve been in places where there were things that were not salvageable — I didn’t see anything like that, where we just have to get rid of stuff. That’s a good sign.”

 

 

Nebraska State Historical Society

 

 

Materials are variously being reboxed and treated for mold. She said the container housing the archives was free of other problems. “We didn’t really see evidence of animals, which is a good thing. We’ve run into conditions where we had to wear masks, so this wasn’t as bad as something like that.”

Calloway said “the collection is in absolutely the best of hands with the State Historical Society. I feel very comfortable with it being there. It’s in a safe environment with its own professional support staff and a historian on board.” Not everything’s quite sewn up with the NSHS and the archives. Faling said state law prohibits the agency from spending money on an outside collection. Thus, the museum, perhaps with the Society’s aid, must find dollars to underwrite the work and any needed archival-conservation supplies.

The archives ended up in Lincoln via a circutious route. Calloway spoke with several different entities to take them on. An agreement brokered with the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s College of Arts and Sciences and Department of Black Studies eventually fell through. More recently, he considered granting the Hastings, Neb.-based African-American Preservation Organization trusteeship over the collection. Independent scholar Rick Wallace, a longtime friend of the Calloways, heads the group. He’s also on the Heritage Nebraska board and a State Historical Society associate.

Word of the archives needing a safe home reached the Society. Its president, Michael Smith, said upon visiting the museum site and inspecting the archives in storage he and his staff determined there was a need they could fill.

“It’s simply a matter of being of service,” he said. “As a state archives we have people that are knowledgable in archival management and we have space to house the collection for Dr. Johnson to do an inventory of what’s there.”

“We’ve agree to provide custodial care so the materials would not get further damaged,” said Faling. “We want it to have the best home possible ultimately. We’re not making claim to this. We want to make clear we don’t own this collection. We’ve offered to house it for a year until the Great Plains board figures out what to do”

She said the archives in Lincoln will, at least for now, be accessible only by the Calloways, the museum board and persons so designated. “Were not trying to restrict this in anyway,” she said, “but we have work to do to it and to get it organized.”

An inventory alone would be major progress for the museum given its recent history. The low point may have been when City of Omaha code inspectors pronounced the Lake St. building uninhabitable in 2006, effectively making the museum homeless. The building’s been closed more than it’s been open during Jim Calloway’s tenure. Besides a temporary display at the Blue Lion Centre, the collections have been out of sight.

 

 

CLYDE MALONE COMMUNITY CENTER COLLECTION
From the GPBHM collection
The board of directors has long been in flux, traditionally composed of grassroots community members of modest means, not players wielding money or influence. Until the recent reorganization, no formal working board was in place for some time. With no budget, Calloway said, “I do what I can to keep the building going out of my own pocket, but it’s too much for one person, it’s always been too much for one person.” Calloway works as a hotel bell cap and not long ago made his “home” a warehouse, with no electricity or running water, where some museum’s artifacts are kept.

Calloway said the museum has debts of about $5,000 for outstanding storage fees, taxes and assorted other claims and liens. He said the Lake St. building’s utilities are turned off by choice. The museum has maintained its 501c3 status.

Board member Alice Station goes back to the 1950s with Bertha Calloway and the Negro Historical Society that preceded the museum. She collected photos and other materials related to the Buffalo Soldiers. She said it’s pained her to see the museum lay dormant and the archives unused. In a 2001 move that upset Station and brought criticism of Calloway, he rejected a $50,000 city allocation for roof repairs as inadequate. Even after the allocation was increased in 2003 to $100,000 he held out for more. When funding was made contingent on Calloway providing financial accountings he did not comply and the monies were withdrawn. The museum went from a guaranteed $50,000 to a probable $100,000 to nothing.

Similar noncompliance led Douglas County to withdraw allocations. The events may explain the GPBHM’s recent inability to obtain funds. “I admit I made a mistake,” said Calloway. “Work that needs doing now could have been fixed. Where I feel like I’ve accomplished my goal of saving the archives, I’ve failed to preserve the building.”

It didn’t help matters that Calloway and former Omaha City Councilman Frank Brown fueded. Bertha had her own run-ins with movers-and-shakers in the past. Intractability isolated the museum from funding sources. “It was always a survival mode really for them, and Mrs. Calloway was very, very protective of the collection,” said Loves Jazz & Arts Center executive director Neville Murray. “She thought it was important that as an African-American museum African-Americans should be running it. She was suspicious of folks from outside the community and their motives.”

Jim Calloway said neither he nor his mother have any use for “high falutin” folks.

Tekla Johnson offers another point of view. “People have complained in the past Ms. Calloway was a bit controlling, but she didn’t know who to trust and she tried to protect it.” Bottomline, said Andre Faling, “you have to say the Calloways did a great service to the community to have all this stuff. If they hadn’t been doing this, this history would not be there. They do deserve some thanks for sure.”

The museum seemed at an impasse until the recent turn of events. Now the archives are squared away, funding sources for the building’s renovation may be surfacing and a new board offers the potential for new ideas and energy. But what happens after the one-year custodial agreement concludes? Where do the archives go then? And what role, if any, will the Lake St. building play in the future?

Calloway said he’s exploring options to accomodate the archives beyond the one-year term. A refurbished Lake St. building is part of his vision. “The research documents have been the priority, but I don’t want to forget about the building,” he said. “That’s the next big venture.” He anticipates board members leading fund raising efforts for its rehab. Little more than bandaid fixes have been done. The result is that a Thomas Kimball-designed Jacobethan Revival Style edifice that survived the 1913 Easter tornado and housed the Webster Telephone Exchange and the Nebraska Urban League, sits vacant, vulnerable to the ravages of time and the elements.

Michael Alley of Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture PC, echoes the sentiments of many in viewing the structure as an important piece of architecture and history.

 

 

Michael Alley

 

 

“That’s such a significant building on so many different levels — because of Thomas Kimball and the tornado it survived. It was the nerve center for rescue-cleanup efforts in the wake of the deadly storm. When we lose buildings like this we really lose a sense of place. These physical markers reference points in our community’s history, so the loss isn’t just a building but it really is a loss of history. That’s why it’s so critical to protect these assets.

“All the work I’ve done has been pro bono, just purely out of a passion and a desire to see this thing protected and ultimately restored. Our firm has done many, many projects in north Omaha and we just care deeply about the community. It’s a building I drive by and it just grieves me to see it in that condition.”

He said in a district like north Omaha that’s seen much of its historic building and housing stock razed, the loss would be compounded. If the building were restored, he added, it could anchor North 24th revitalization. North Omaha Development Project plans for aHeritage District mention an African-American museum. African-American Empowerment Network leaders also have the museum on their radar as the network-led North Omaha Arts Alliance takes shape.

For now though, the building’s a worn symbol of what once was. Even when it housed a fully operational institution from 1976 through the late ‘90s, the structure was in various states of disrepair. Years removed from any real work being done beyond roof patch jobs and broken window mends, the building is in dire straits.

The 2008 Alley-led needs analysis underlined the need for swift action. Conditions are worse two years later. “With the heavy snows we’ve had it’s honestly hanging on a razor’s edge,” Alley said. “The way that roof is framed, particularly the low pitched roof, the trusses are embedded into the wall, so if the roof does cave in or give way it will probably pull the walls in with it. I’ve talked to structural engineers and a contractor about putting temporary shoring underneath the roof structure. You’d have to start in the basement and go up through the floors, and put in some posts that would at least keep it from a catastrophic roof collapse.

“The other particularly precarious thing is an old brick flue or chimney in desperate need of tuck pointing. It needs to be dissembled and saved because that’s an important historic element we’d need to rebuild. But if that falls over in a big windstorm or somebody sneezes wrong it could take the whole thing in, too.”

Sub-zero temperatures take their own toll. Minus any heat inside the building, he said, “the freeze-thaw cycle just destroys buildings.”

Stabilizing the “most desperate needs,” Alley said, would take $19,000 to cover: temporary shoring floors and roofs; applying plywood on windows; installing and maintaining temporary heat and cooling; removing the flue stack. In his 2008 report he estimated $44,300 to more comprehensively address “immediate needs.” Much more would be required to retrofit the entire building’s mechanical, electrical systems and bring the structure up to code.

Daunting as it may be, Alley said the building is far from a lost cause, though time is not on its side. “I have no anxiety about the ability to restore the building, protect it and renovate it into a wonderful facility that will outlast our lifetimes. So, it’s not too far gone.” He said his firm’s salvaged buildings “in this bad of shape or worse,” including Omaha’s old Hill Hotel, now the Kensington Tower, and Astro Theater, now The Rose. “We’ve had some real tough projects,” he said. “The difference with this one is that unless the failure that’s occurring right now is dealt with, it will pull the whole building in on itself and there won’t be anything left to save.”

While he said historic status does not protect the site from potential razing it does open opportunities for historic preservation tax credits to facilitate renovation.

He said as beloved as the building is in preservation-architectural circles, certain things must happen before folks pony-up. “I know a bunch of people who would love to jump in on this project if the situation was right. I do think there’s a lack of confidence in the leadership or ownership…a great deal of anxiety about uses of funds and things like that. That’s what I keep running into.”If such concerns could be overcome, he said, “many methods could be used to restore the building.”

 

 

 

 

Jim Calloway is aware of people’s caution. “I can understand certain individuals reluctance to get involved because of the past issues,” he said. “I can understand people not wanting to really jump in and get involved because of questions and rumors that have been raised in the past, and I think that’s been a stumbling block.”

Some suggest that as long as Calloway is involved the museum will find no backing because his track record makes him too much a lightning rod figure. As a small community organization the museum’s always been controlled by a Calloway and a nominal board whose members have typically been elderly peers of Bertha Calloway’s. Age, illness and death have winnowed their ranks. At various times Jim Calloway’s been unable or unwilling to provide a museum board roster. A formally constituted, working board did not appear to be in place until the reorganization. Recent budgets, financial records and board meeting minutes are unavailable.

City officials and others have expressed concerns about not having a full understanding of who is responsible for the museum. From 2006 through 2008 Calloway installed two interim executive directors, first Matthew Stelly and then Kennan Wright. Each conducted business and made announcements on behalf of the museum, whose governance has been called into question many times.

Neb. State Sen. Brenda Council has said, “People don’t know who’s in charge and who’s going to be accountable. It’s very problematic. Believe me, they have an awful long way to go.” Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray said until the museum has a fully functional board it stands little chance of getting stakeholders to buy in. Upon news of the museum installing a new board, Gray said, “It’s a positive move,” but he withheld further comment until seeing who it’s members are.

Gray, Council and Douglas County Board Commissioner Chris Rodgers form a committee allocating turnback tax dollars for North O cultural projects. Gray and Council say loosely structured organizations like the museum must follow best practices if they expect funding. The GPBHM was denied turnback dollars in 2009.

“We have to establish the necessary boards for some of these organizations to be viable,” Gray said. “Their boards have to adhere to certain rules and regulations that all other boards have to adhere to. In order to bring the museum back the way it needs to be brought back — and it’s not impossible to do — there has to be a credible board, there has to be a credible curator, there has to be a credible building that is in fact a museum. As a community we’ve got to do that and if we don’t do that then we’re just kind of whistling in the wind because you know nobody with means or resources is going to support an organization if those standards have not been met.”

Then there’s the impediment of Jim Calloway himself. Wright found objections in the community to his presence and feels the time has come for him to relinquish control.

“A lot of people have tried and failed to work with Mr. Calloway as far as restoring the building,” said Wright. “One of the first things to come out of people’s mouths is, ‘If Mr. Calloway is going to be involved with the museum then I’m not going to be involved with it.’ The museum building needs to be totally disconnected from the Calloway family. A lot of people support the project but it needs to be separated on its own and not be babysitted or controlled by anybody from the Calloway family.”

Calloway said it’s no surprise some condition their participation on “my being out of the way. I know I’m kind of an obstacle.” He insists he’s “stepped aside” before and is willing to do so again.

Just as the long list of building needs is nothing new, the lack of money to tackle them is an old story. In the museum’s heyday enough grants and donations came in to mount exhibits, hire part-time staff and operate five or six days a week. Still, as far back as the late ‘90s, Bertha Calloway fretted over creditors and outstanding repairs.

Ever since she and her late husband James acquired the building in 1974 little more than piecemeal fixes have been made. Her son Jim Calloway said his frustration with partial mends is what motivated him to reject city funding.

Repairs may ultimately be a moot point. In October 2006 the city filed a 32-page Notice of Violations document against the museum, detailing dozens of serious code infractions encompassing the entire structure. The museum was given two months to cure the problems under threat of demolition. A lack of funds and liability insurance stymied any remedies. Following the city’s next inspection, a ticket may be issued. The misdemeanor criminal citation is punishable by a judge-determined fine or jail time. The citation could be appealed. The next city action after a ticket could be a demolition order, although Chief City Inspector Kevin Denker said the building is low on his department’s priority list given the property’s “historical relevance.”

Calloway said the city is “being patient with us, they really are. They understand the significance and the importance of the building and how much it means to the community, but these code violations have to be addressed very soon. It is definitely not an open-ended situation.”

Another sticking point is possession. Wright said people he approached to serve on a reorganized board expressed concerns about the building’s and the archives’ ownership. “They’re confused about the ownership of the building — who owns the building, does it belong to the Calloway family or does it belong to the museum?”

Ownership came into question in a case decided in the Douglas Country District Court Jim Calloway defended the museum’s viability against claims it was defunct. He found himself embattled with his late sister, Bonita, over control of the museum’s assets. The late Karen Tibbs represented her. Tibbs also represented the interests of Bertha Calloway’s estate. Tibbs was named conservator after a court found Bertha Calloway incompetent. Tibbs contended the museum’s assets are family property while Jim Calloway argued the line he said his mother always maintained — that the building and contents belong to the 501c3 Great Plains Black Museum and Interpretive Center, Inc. the museum is chartered under and the building is deeded under.

Citing a clause in the deed that states the building reverts back to Bertha should the GPBHM cease operating as a museum, Tibbs claimed the museum was no longer a functioning museum. But in a 2006 ruling Judge Robert Burkhard declared the GPBHM never stopped operating as a museum. Tibbs appealed the ruling to no avail.

Wright said potential funders are afraid renovations could be made only to have the museum move elsewhere. Would a newly refurbished building then revert back to the Calloway family’s ownership? Would the archives and artifacts revert back as well? Wright said until the clause is removed the museum will face uneasy scrutiny. People who’d like to get involved, he said, await some definitive resolution.

The way Jim Calloway sees it the “dispute has been settled once and for all, and as far as I’m concerned,” he said, “that’s opened the door, paved the way for progress. That had always been a problem — it impeded a lot of what could have taken place during that time. Everything was on hold.” As for the clause, he said he understands people’s concerns but insists if the building did revert back to the family it’d go to the state to cover his destitute mother’s nursing home bills.

Wright said he found great interest within the African-American community and the larger community in reopening the museum, if not in its original Lake St. home than somewhere nearby. But restoring the building for any use would take upwards of $1.5 million according to figures put together by Alley. Restoring to stringent historic landmark specs and meeting strict museum-quality climate control standards would be costly. That’s why Alley, Calloway, Wright and others say it may be more practical to restore the building as the museum’s administrative headquarters and either renovate an existing structure or construct a new one to serve as the public museum site. A second building would mean another steep price tag. Then there would need to be funds for an operating budget to see the museum through its first few years.

 

English: Picture of Bertha Calloway

English: Picture of Bertha Calloway (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

At Calloway’s behest Wright applied for 40-plus grants for the museum in 2008-2009. None were awarded.

“During this difficult economic time a lot of organizations were opting to donate funds to already running programs rather than capital projects,” said Wright, “which the museum project would be because the building is in such bad condition and needs a lot of work before we could even reopen.”

In an application for Community Block Grant monies Wright and Calloway asked for the improbable sum of $1.5 million, which was denied. City of Omaha community block grant administrator James Thele said among the things he and his staff weigh is “what other money can you bring to the table,” noting the program’s meant to fill funding gaps, not be a primary source. He said Calloway’s past refusal of city funding “would not prejudice” consideration of new grant requests by the museum. “However,” he said, “knowing an organization has had problems in the past, we’re going to ask certain questions and do some research of our own.”

Wright said the resistance he encountered had to do with the museum’s shadow board. “Without a strong board of directors no foundation is going to want to donate money with the financial problems the museum’s had. When you apply for grants one of the first things a funder does is vet your board of directors. If your board is weak then you might as well forget it, it’s not going to happen,” he said.

Regardless of past or current problems, there’s great interest in a reborn museum.

Said Council, “I don’t think you could talk to anyone in the community who doesn’t want to see that institution restored. But at what cost? And when I say at what cost I mean putting money someplace where you know it’s going to have a return in terms of providing the programs, i.e. the museum, on a regular, consistent basis and there’s measures and steps taken to preserve the collection and to build the collection.” As for the building, she said, “the consensus in the community is that it’s unquestionably a historic landmark we’d like to see restored, but it’s a long way from being at a point where people feel comfortable or confident that will occur.”

Nothing short of a public-private rescue seems likely to change things. In the community block grant application Wright outlined a detailed vision for what the resurrected museum might look like. It’s a beautiful vision complete with a restored building, a research center, a library/archives, meeting rooms, offices, educational programs, special events, outreach activities, guided tours, a professional staff.

Wright suggests it’s the city’s obligation to save the building and institutionalize the museum as community assets in service of education, preservation, history, culture and tourism. He believe once the city steps up, others will follow.

Ben Gray agrees the public-private sectors have an obligation, but he feels the African American community must first demonstrate commitment. “We have to put up something, too. We have to have some skin in the game, whether it be sweat equity, whether it be whatever meager resources we have to bring to the table, we’ve gotta bring that,” he said. “And then we’ve got to say to the broader community, This is the part we can do, these are the things we have done, these are the mechanisms we have put in place, these are the commitments we are willing to make, what are you all going to do now?’”

Doing the right thing aside, Gray said unless the museum has a solid infrastructure in place no one’s going to sink dollars “into a black hole” that lacks the leadership and the tools to succeed over the long haul.

As the politics play out, Calloway does what he can to protect the building, whose interior is covered in tarps to collect water let in by the leaky roof. He suctions out the water as best he can. He’s also exploring options to display portions of the collection somewhere. Ben Gray may have a line on a site.

Meanwhile, Tekla Johnson continues discovering gems in the treasure trove spread out before her. From tidbits about the Stone Soul Picnic to the history of the Eure family to the exploits of Buffalo Soldiers, she said the archives promise to shed a whole new light on the African-American experience in Nebraska.

Coloring History, A Long, Hard Road for UNO Black Studies

August 25, 2010 3 comments

Campus Unrest

Image by jen-the-librarian via Flickr

If you’re surprised that Omaha, Neb. boasts a sizable African-American community with a rich legacy of achievement, then you will no doubt be surprised to learn the University of Nebraska at Omaha formed one of the nation’s first Black Studies departments.  The UNO Department of Black Studies has operated continuously for more than 40 years. The following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) charts the long, hard path that led to the department‘s founding and that’s provided many twists and turns on the road to institutional acceptance and stability.  At the time I wrote this piece and that it appeared in print, the UNO Department of Black Studies was in an uneasy transition period. Since then, things have stabilized under new leadership at the university and within the department.

Coloring History, A Long, Hard Road for UNO Black Studies

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

When 54 black students staged a sit-in on Monday, Nov. 10, 1969 at the office of University of Nebraska at Omaha’s then-president Kirk Naylor, they meant their actions to spur change at a school where blacks had little voice. Change came with the start of the UNO department of black studies in 1971-72. A 35th anniversary celebration in April 2007 featured a dramatic re-enactment of the ’69 events that set the eventual development of UNO’s black studies department in motion.

Led by Black Liberators for Action on Campus (BLAC), the protesters occupied Naylor’s administration building suite when he refused to act on their demands. The group focused on black identity, pride and awareness. When they were escorted out by police, the demonstrators showed their defiant solidarity by raising their fists overhead and singing “We Shall Overcome,” which was then echoed by white and black student sympathizers alike.

The group’s demands included a black studies program. UNO, like many universities at the time, offered only one black history course. Amid the free speech and antiwar protests on campuses were calls for equal rights and inclusion for blacks.

 

 

 

 

Ron Estes, who was one of the sit-in participants in 1969, said, “We knew of the marches and sit-ins where people stood up for their rights, and we decided to make the same stand.” Joining Estes on that Monday almost 40 years ago was Michael Maroney who agreed, “We finally woke up and realized there was something wrong with this university and if we didn’t take action it wasn’t going to change.”

Well-known Omaha photojournalist Rudy Smith, who was then a student senator said, “We approached it from different perspectives, but the black students at the time were unified on a goal. We knew what the struggle was like, and we were prepared to struggle.”

The same unrest that was disrupting schools on the coasts, including clashes between students and authorities, never turned violent at UNO. The sit-in, and a march three days earlier, unfolded peacefully. Even the arrests went smoothly. Also proceeding without incident was a 1967 “teach-in”; Ernie Chambers, who was not yet a state senator but who was becoming a prominent leader in the community, and a group of students demonstrated by trying to teach the importance of black history to the administration, specifically the head of the history department.

The sit-in’s apparent failure turned victory when the jailed students were dubbed “the Omaha 54” and the community rallied to their cause. Media coverage put the issues addressed by their demands in the news. Black community leaders like Chambers, Charles Washington, Rodney Wead and Bertha Calloway continued to put pressure on the administration to act. Officials at the school, which had recently joined the University of Nebraska system, felt compelled to consider adding a formal black studies component. From UNO’s point-of-view, a black studies program only made sense in an urban community with tens of thousands African-Americans.

 

 

Rudy Smith

 

 

Within weeks of the sit-in and throughout the next couple of years, student-faculty committees were convened, studies were conducted, and proposals and resolutions were advanced. Despite resistance from entrenched old white quarters, support was widespread on campus in 1969-70. Once a consensus was reached, discussion centered on whether to form a program or a department.

The student-faculty senates came out in favor of it, as did the College of Arts and Sciences Dean Vic Blackwell, a key sympathizer. Even Naylor; he actually initiated the Black Studies Action Committee chaired by political science professor Orville Menard that approved creating the department. Much community input went into the deliberations. The University of Nebraska board of regents sealed the deal.

No one is sure of the impact that the Omaha 54 made, but they did spur change. UNO soon got new leadership at the top, a black studies department and more minority faculty. Its athletic teams dropped the “Indians” mascot/name. A women’s studies program, multicultural office and strategic diversity mission also came to pass.

“I think we helped the university change,” Maroney said. “I think we gave it that impetus to move this agenda forward.”

Before 1971, federally funded schools were not requireed to report ethnicity enrollment numbers. In 1972, 595 students, or about 4.7 percent of UNO’s 12,762 total students, were black. In 2006, 758, or about 5.2 percent of the school’s 14,693 total students were black.

Omaha 54 member and current UNO associate professor in the Department of Educational Administration and Supervision Karen Hayes said, “We were the pebble that went in the pond, and the ripples continued through the years for hopefully positive growth.”

During that formative process, the husband-wife team of Melvin and Margaret Wade were recruited to UNO in 1970 from the University of California at Santa Barbara’s black studies department. Wade came as acting director of what was still only an “on-paper black studies program.” His role was to help UNO gauge where interest and support lay and formulate a plan for what a department should look like. He said he and Margaret, now his ex-wife, did some 200 interviews with faculty, staff and students.

Speaking by phone from Rhode Island, Wade said the administration favored a program over a department, but advocacy fact-finding efforts turned the tide. That debate resurfaced in the 1980s in the wake of proposed budget cuts targeting black studies. In en era of tightened higher education budgets, according to then-department chair Julien Lafontant and retiring department associate professor Daniel Boamah-Wiafe, black studies seemed always singled out for cutbacks.

“Every year, the same problem,” Lafontant said. That’s when Lafontant did the unthinkable — he proposed his own department be downgraded to a program . Called a Judas and worse, he defended his position, saying a program would be insulated from future cuts whereas a department would remain exposed and, thus, vulnerable. A native of Haiti, Lafontant found himself in a losing battle with the politics of ethnicity that dictate “a black foreigner” cannot have the same appreciation of the black experience here as an African-American who is born in the United States.

Turmoil was not new to the department. Its first two leaders, Melvin Wade and Milton White, had brief tenures ending in disputes with administrators.

In times of crisis, the black community’s had the department’s back. Ex-Omahan A. B. “Buddy” Hogan, who rallied grassroots support in the ’80s, said from his home in California that rescues would be unnecessary if UNO had more than “paternalistic tolerance” of black studies.

“I don’t think the university ever really embraced the black studies department as a viable part,” Maroney said. “It was more a nuisance to them. But when they tried to get rid of it, the black community rose up and so it was just easier to keep it. I don’t think it’s ever had the kind of funding it really needs to be all it could be.”

UNO black studies Interim Chair Richard Breaux said given the historically tenuous hold of the department, perhaps it’s time to consider a School of Ethnic Studies at the university that includes black studies, Latino studies, etc.

Still Fighting

In recent interviews with persons close to the department, past and present, The Reader found: general distrust of the university’s commitment to black studies, despite administration proclamations that the school is fully invested in it; the perception that black studies is no more secure now than at its start; and the belief that its growth is hampered by being in a constant mode of survival.

After 35 years, the department should be, in the words of Boamah-Wiafe, “much stronger, much more consolidated than it is now.”

Years of constant struggle is debilitating. Lafontant, who still teaches a black studies course, said, “Being in a constant struggle to survive can eliminate so many things. You don’t have time to sit down and see what you need to do. Even now it’s the same thing. It’s still fighting. They have to put a stop to that and find a way to help the black studies department to not be so on guard all the time.”

Is there cause to celebrate a department that’s survived more than thrived?

“I think the fact it has endured for 35 years is itself a triumph of the teachers, the students, certainly the black community and to a certain extent elements of the university,” former UNO black studies Chair Robert Chrisman said by phone from Oakland, Calif. However he questions UNO’s commitment to black studies in an era when the school’s historic urban mission seems more suburban-focused, looking to populations and communities west of Omaha, and less focused on the urban community and its needs closer to home. It wasn’t until 1990 that UNO made black studies a core education requirement. College of Arts and Sciences Dean Shelton Hendricks has reiterated UNO’s commitment to black studies, but to critics it sounds like lip service.

Chrisman’s call for black studies in his prestigious Black Scholar journal in the late ’60s inspired UNO student activists, such as Rudy Smith, to mobilize for it. Smith said the department’s mere presence is “a living symbol of progress and hope.”

For Chrisman the endurance of black studies is tempered by “the fact the United States is governed by two major ideological forces. One is corporate capitalism and the other is racism, and that’s run through all of the nation’s institutions … . Now we tend to think colleges and universities are somehow exempt from these two forces, but they’re not … Colleges and universities are a manifestation of racism and corporatism and in some cases they’re training grounds for it.”

 

 

Robert Chrisman

 

 

He said the uncomfortable truth is that the “primary mission of black studies is to rectify the dominant corporate and racist values of the society in the university itself. You see a contradiction don’t you? And I think that’s one of the reasons why the resistance is so reflexive and so deeply ingrained.”

Smith said the movement for the discipline played out during “a time frame when if blacks were going to achieve anything they had to take the initiative and force the issue. Black studies is an outgrowth of the civil rights movement.”

Along these lines, Chrisman said, small college departments centered around western European thought, such as the classics, “are protected and maintained” in contrast with black studies. He said one must never forget black studies programs/departments arose out of agitation. “Almost all of them were instituted by one form of coercion or another. There was the strike at San Francisco State, the UNO demonstration, the siege at Cornell University, on and on. In the first four years of the black studies movement, something like 200 student strikes or incidents occurred on campuses, so the black studies movement was not welcomed with open arms … . It came in, in most instances, against resistance.”

In this light, Hogan said, “there’s a natural human tendency to oppose things imposed upon you. It’s understandable there’s been this opposition, but at some point you would have thought there would have been enough intellectual enlightenment for the administration to figure out this is a positive resource for this university, for this community and it should be supported.”

Organizing Studies

The program versus department argument is important given the racial-social-political dynamic from which black studies sprang. Boamah-Wiafe said opponents look upon the discipline “as something that doesn’t belong to academia.” Thus any attempt to restrict or reduce black studies is an ugly reminder of the onerous second-class status blacks have historically endured in America.

As Wade explained, “A program really means you have a kind of second-class status, and a department means you have the prerogative to propose the hire of faculty who are experts in black studies. In a department, theoretically, you have the power to award tenure. With a program, you generally have to have faculty housed in other departments, so faculty’s principal allegiances would be to those departments. So if you have a program, you are in many respects a step-child — always in subservience to those departments … ”

Then there’s the prestige that attends a department. That’s why any hint of messing with the department, whose 2006/2007 budget totaled $389,730, smacks some as racism and draws the ire of community watchdogs. When in 1984 Lafontant and then-UNO Chancellor Del Weber pushed the program option, Breaux said, “There was tremendous outcry from people like Charlie Washington [the late Omaha activist] and Buddy Hogan [who headed the local NAACP chapter]. They really came to bat for the department of black studies. A lot of people, like Michael Maroney — who were part of that Omaha 54 group that got arrested — said, ‘Now wait a minute, we didn’t do this for nothing.’” The issue went all the way to the board of regents, who by one vote preserved the department.

 

Michael Maroney

 

 

As recently as 2002, then-NAACP local chapter president Rev. Everett Reynolds sensed the university was retreating from its stated commitment to black studies. He took his concerns to then-chancellor Nancy Belck. In a joint press conference, she proclaimed UNO’s support for the department and he expressed satisfaction with her guarantees to keep it on solid footing. She promised UNO would maintain five full-time faculty members in black studies. Breaux said only three of those lines are filled. A fourth is filled by a special faculty development person. Breaux said black studies has fewer full-time faculty today than 30 years ago.

“So you ask me about progress and my answer is … not much. We’re talking 30 years, and there’s not really been an increase in faculty or faculty lines,” Breaux said.

Hendricks said he’s working on filling all five full-time faculty lines.

Sources say the department’s chronically small enrollment and few majors contribute to difficulty hiring/retaining faculty in a highly competitive marketplace and to the close scrutiny the department receives whenever talk of cutting funds surfaces.

Wade said black studies at UNO is hardly alone in its plight. He said the move to reduce the status of black studies on other campuses has led to cuts. “It has happened in enough cases to be noted,” Wade said. “I was affiliated with the black studies program at Vassar College, and that’s one whose status has been diminished over the years … . In other words, the struggle for black studies is being waged as we speak. It’s still not on the secure foundations it should be in the United States.”

Some observers say black studies must navigate a corporate-modeled university culture predisposed to oppose it. “That means at every level there’s always bargaining, conniving, chiseling, pressuring to get your goals. Every year the money is deposited in a pot to colleges, and it’s at the dean’s discretion … where and how the money’s distributed,” Chrisman said. Robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul machinations are endemic to academia, and critics will tell you black studies is on the short end of funding shell games that take from it to give to other units.

Chrisman feels an over-reliance on part-time, adjunct faculty impedes developing “a core to your department.” At UNO he questions why the College of Arts and Sciences has not devoted resources to secure more full-time faculty as a way to solidify and advance the program. It’s this kind of ad hoc approach that makes him feel “the administration really doesn’t quite respect the black experience totally.” He said it strikes him as a type of “getting-it-as-cheap-as-possible” shortcut. Hendricks said he believes the ratio of part-time to full-time faculty in the department is comparable to that in other departments in UNO’s College of Arts and Sciences. He also said part-time, adjunct faculty drawn from the community help fulfill the strong black studies mission to be anchored there.

Breaux’s successor as Interim UNO black studies chair, Peggy Jones, is a tenured track associate professor. Her specialty is not black studies but fine arts.

Boamah-Wiafe feels with the departures of Breaux and himself the department “will be the weakest, in terms of faculty” it has been in his 30 years there.

The Struggle Continues

Critics say UNO’s black studies can be a strong academic unit with the right support. The night of the Omaha 54 reenactment Michael Maroney, president/CEO of the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, made a plea for “greater collaboration and communication” between Omaha’s black community and the black studies department. “It’s a two-way street,” he said. Omaha photojournalist Rudy Smith said the incoming chair must work “proactively” with the community.

Chrisman, too, sees a need for partnering. He noted while the black community may lack large corporate players, “you can have an organized community board which helps make the same kind of influence. With that board, the black studies chair and teachers can work to really project plans and curriculum and articulate the needs of black people in that community. It’s one thing for a single teacher or a chair to pound on the dean’s door and say, ‘I need this,’ but if an entire community says to the chancellor, ‘This is what we perceive we need as a people,’ I think you have more pressure.

“That would be an important thing to institute as one of the continuing missions of black studies is direct community service because there’s so much need in the community. And I think black studies chairs can take the initiative on that.”

He said recent media reports about the extreme poverty levels among Omaha’s African-American populace “should have been a black studies project.”

Breaux said little if any serious scholarship has come out of the department on the state of black Omaha, not even on the city’s much-debated school-funding issue. Maroney sees the department as a source of “tremendous intellectual capital” the community can draw on. Smith said, “I’m not disappointed with the track record because they are still in existence. There’s still opportunity, there’s still hope to grow and to expand, to have an impact. It just needs more community and campus support.”

What happens with UNO black studies is an open question considering its highly charged past and the widely held perception the university merely tolerates it. That wary situation is likely to continue until the department, the community and the university truly communicate.

“The difference between potential and reality is sometimes a wide chasm,” Hogan said. “The University of Nebraska system is seemingly oblivious to the opportunities and potential for the black studies department at UNO. They don’t seem to have a clue. They’ve got this little jewel there and rather than polish it and mount it and promote it, they seem to want to return it to the state of coal. I don’t get it.” ,

Bertha’s Battle, Berth Calloway, the Grand Lady of Lake Street, Struggles to Keep the Great Plains Black History Museum Afloat

May 11, 2010 1 comment

Picture of Bertha Calloway

Image via Wikipedia

I have written and continue to write many stories about the African-American community in Omaha.  One of the first articles I did in that regard was in 1996 about Bertha Calloway and her Great Plains Black History Museum for The Reader (www.thereader.com)..  Since then, I’ve since written about her and her museum, which subsequently fell on hard times and closed, a few more times.  She’s one of those force of nature characters you just cannot ignore, embodying a formidable spirit that demands your respect and attention.

Her vision for her museum has yet to be realized but there are promising new developments that a future blog post, in the form of a recent story I did, will detail.

Bertha’s Battle
Berth Calloway, the Grand Lady of Lake Street, Struggles to Keep the Great Plains Black History Museum Afloat

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.coom)

These are hard times indeed for the Great Plains Black History Museum and its 71-year-old founder, director, curator and guardian, Bertha Calloway.

The future of the museum, at 2213 Lake Street, is in doubt unless significant funding can be secured. For months now, it’s survived on meager admission income, a few small donations and grants, and the limited personal savings of Calloway’s family.

Added to these difficulties, Calloway’s recently experienced personal setbacks and tragedies. In 1993, she underwent brain surgery to remove a benign tumor and then lost her husband of 47 years, James, when he died of a ruptured artery. A grandson was murdered in New Orleans in 1994.

She continues under medical care today and sometimes walks with the aid of a cane. One of the cruelest setbacks, though, has been the partial memory loss plaguing her since the operation. As one whose work depends on a steel-trap mind, she’s keenly frustrated when once indelibly etched names, dates, places and events elude her — just beyond her recall.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.Not now. Not in what should be golden years for her and halcyon days for the museum.

Still, she hasn’t lost hope of realizing her “perfect dream” — a fully funded, staffed and restored institution free of the financial difficulties that have nagged it over its 20-year history.

Calloway saved the turn-of-the-century building housing the museum from the rubble heap in 1974, when she and her husband bought it. The 1906 red-brick building — headquarters for the original Nebraska Telephone Co. — was designed by famed Omaha architect Thomas Kimball. With the help of volunteers and a $101,000 grant from the federal Bicentennial Commission, the couple converted the structure into the museum, opening it in 1976, and got it listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

 

Now, however, Calloway sees the building she put so much of her life into deteriorating around her. Major repairs and renovations are needed, including replacement of the leaky roof and installation of new climate control and lighting systems. IN some exhibition spaces, ceiling pane;s are water-stained and others are missing, exposing warped wood. Bare light bulbs hang overhead in many rooms.

There is no paid staff except for William Reaves, a jack-of-all-trades on loan from the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. Without anyone to catalog the museum’s extensive archives, heaps of newspapers, magazines and photographs sit in open boxes and on shelves. Calloway, whose ill health has forced her to slow down, relies on her son Jim to help run things. Money’s so tight that paying the utilities often is a leap of faith.

At least she can joke about it. When Reaves answers the phone one recent morning, she instantly quips, with her sweet, sing-song voice an enchanting smile: “Tell ‘em the money’s on the way.”

The call was from a Smithsonian Institution researcher, among many scholars who frequently use the museum as a resource.

Despite a glowing national reputation, the museum’s always only barely scraped by. Calloway’s kept it intact through guile, gut, sweat, spit, polish and prayer. Lots of prayer.

“People just don’t understand how difficult it’s been to keep it going,” she says, “until they come through it and see how much is in here and how much work it takes. It’s even more of a struggle now than ever before. We’re always on the verge of closing. But I don’t want to sound too negative. I think our main focus should be on keeping the building open and providing jobs for people to give tours, file, catalog. Those are things that could be going on right now, but it takes money, and I hope we get the same amount of money from the city that other museums get.”

Calloway feels her museum has long been neglected by local funding sources in comparison with mainstream museum such as the Joslyn and Western Heritage. She’s had little cause for hope lately, especially when a major funder — United Arts Omaha — withdrew its support. She poured out her discontent over UAO’s action in a passionate editorial published in the Omaha World-Herald.

Other than occasional benefit events, the museum’s fundraising efforts have been dormant recently. But they are being revived, along with a planned membership drive, following a board of directors reorganization. Although Calloway tries to remain diplomatic about the museum’s second-class status, her supporters do not.

“It’s an embarrassment to her that the museum is treated the way it is by the larger community,” says Larry Menyweather-Woods, an associate professor in the Department of Black Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “It’s representative of the fact that many people don’t consider our (black) history to be that important.”

According to Vicky Parks, a librarian at Omaha’s W. Dale Clark Main Library, “She does not get the respect and support she deserves. I’m truly saddened that we have not as a community chosen to provide the financial resources to institutionalize that museum.”

Aside from a trace of bitterness she can’t disguise and a rare memory lapse that upsets her, Calloway still has a sharp, often biting wit and and feisty — even stubborn –determination to see this latest crisis through. The museum truly is her mission, and she vows “to keep it going…so that my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren know that African-Americans were involved in the settlement of this country and the settlement of the West in particular.

“That’s important because it makes you feel like you belong.”

Calloway’s own displaced sense of belonging began as a young girl in Denver, where her family settled after too many years of Jim Crow discrimination in the South.

She resisted the one-sided history taught in school that conspicuously ignored blacks. Instead, she embraced the anecdotes told by her grandfather, George “Dotey Pa” Pigford, who regaled her with tales of his cowboy exploits in Texas and the accomplishments of black pioneers and settlers she never heard about in class. Those stories inspired her to learn more about the rich heritage of blacks on the Great Plains and eventually led her to become a serious collector, preserver and interpreter of black history.

 


 

“The history I was forced to learn and hated just consisted of white history,” she says. “I never felt like I belonged to that kind of history. I knew there had to be some other kind where black people fit in other than slavery. One reason I started the museum is that I realized when my children were growing up there wasn’t anything in the public schools about African-Americans.

“People must see black history in order for the images they have of black people to change. That’s what our museum is all about. It’s about revealing a history that’s been withheld.”

Calloway has displayed that history in exhibitions and discussed it in countless lectures given at the museum, public schools, universities, historical societies. She’s also lent her expertise to documentaries and books and currently is collaborating with Alonzo Smith, a research historian at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, on an illustrated history of blacks in Nebraska. Dozens of awards honoring her achievements hang on the wall of the Great Plains Black Museum.

On this particular day, someone asks if she’d ever thought if becoming a teacher. “I am a teacher,” she bristles. “You’re learning right now, aren’t you?”

Properly chastened, the questioner asks more precisely if she’d considered a formal teaching career. “The approach is too disciplined for me,” she answers. “I think it’s more fun to jump up and do what I want instead of staying inside a classroom all day.”

As confirmation of her free-spirited ways, her son says, “My mother’s always been an adventurous type of person. As a young boy I can remember plenty of times when she’d go out ‘scavengin’, as she called it, into condemned houses and at work sites” to retrieve artifacts.

Her scavenging netted many museum finds. Other item were donated by individuals and families who — encouraged by her appeals — scoured attics, basements, cellars and garages for precious remnants of the past that might otherwise have been trashed.

Before opening the museum, her own collection threatened over-running the family home at 25th and Evans, where she raised her son and two daughters — Beverly and Bonnie. She has five grandchildren and four great-granchildren. “Our house was so full of magazines, books and things,” she says, “that my beloved husband was glad to see them leave, please believe me.

“I still have lots of things in my own personal collection that I’m sure my son would love me to lose,” she adds with a chuckle.

Calloway’s private stash practically bursts from a small museum office that includes a holster and branding iron used by her grandfather on cattle drives.

Indeed, poking around the museum is like rummaging through Grandma Calloway’s attic. Unlike the foreboding marble palaces that traditionally house history and tend to embalm it, the museum’s a homey, unpretentious, slightly disheveled place whose small rooms are overstuffed with a hodgepodge of memorabilia lovingly scaled down to human size.

The exhibits range from African art to artifacts of black settlers, soldiers, musicians and athletes and to interpretive histories of civil rights leaders. A strong local flavor is preserved in exhibits devoted to Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown, social activist Malcolm X, major league baseball pitcher Bob Gibson, and so forth. The inviting displays beckon visitors to linger and soak up the living history they commemorate.

 

 

Calloway’s charming presence is felt throughout, whether chatting with visitors or bearing witness to some of the history-making events documented there, including early civil rights demonstrations in Omaha led by the late Father John Markoe.

Despite her health problems, she’s still at the museum most every day and pores over materials at home until the wee hours of the morning.

“Even though the last few years have been very traumatic for her, she’s still driven,” her son says. “She’s up until midnight, one o’clock every night doing research. It’s just embedded in her. I think it’s her love for the history and a very legitimate concern for the direction the community is going.”

Calloway explains it this way: “I love what I’m doing. I really do. The kids want me to stop, but I’d just as soon be there as sitting at home watching television. I figure I might as well get up, come on down to the museum and do a few little things that make a difference.”

During a recent lunch at the nearby Fair Deal Cafe, whose bustling atmosphere and authentic soul food put Calloway in a reflective mood about the neighborhood she first came to in 1946:

“Things were jumpin’, as they used to say. You didn’t have to leave 24th Street to get anything you wanted. That’s a fact.”

The Dreamland Ballroom, among other now defunct night spots, featured jazz legends. And the area thrived with activity.

Driving around the neighborhood she’s been such an integral part of, Calloway expressed sadness at the empty storefronts and vacant lots and indignation at the closed Kellom Pool, since reopened.

“I love North Omaha,” she says. “But I hate to see the old buildings torn down. A lot of history is destroyed, and that includes North 24th Street.”

She believes that, with enough help, the museum “could be an anchor” of stability in these unstable times. “Other states don’t have such a resource. People come from all over to research here. Twenty-Fourth Street could be beautiful again,” she adds, wistfully.

Her dream, like her life, has been all about defying convention:

• It’s why, when traveling by bus en route to Texas years ago, she refused to budge when the driver commanded she and her sister move to the back upon crossing the mythical Mason-Dixon Line.

• Why she participated in peaceful demonstrations that helped integrate Omaha’s Peony Park and downtown lunch counters.

• Why she organized such black-pride events as the Stone Soul Picnic and Miss Black Nebraska Beauty Pageant.

• Why she can say “I know I’m a pioneer” without sounding boastful.

• Why she’s invested so much of her life in an old building on the depressed near north side and still searched for artifacts from Pullman Porters and others.

Ask her what’s so special about saving Pullman Porter history anyway, and she replies: “We want to help people in this neighborhood understand their father and grandfathers worked on the railroad in a dignified way. It isn’t something just for black people. A good education is very important and must include African-American history.”

Calloway’s ignored doubters along the way. Her late mother, Lucy Carter, who operated Carter’s Cafe on North 24th Street, wanted Calloway to follow in her footsteps there. But Bertha had different ideas.

Long before there was one, she says, “my dream was to be another Oprah Winfrey, and also start something like this (museum). My mother always thought I was kind of crazy.”

Calloway did her Oprah thing, working as a public affairs professional at WOW-TV in the ‘60 and ‘70s and becoming one of the first black women in the Nebraska broadcast industry.

Through good times and bad, she says, “a dream and a loyal, faithful man kept me going. I had a husband who was very supportive of everything I did. He always made me feel like I could do whatever I wanted to do.” She despairs her “main support” is gone now, as are the “militant friends” she waged the fight for equality with.

She sees the museum’s fight as emblematic of the plight of Omaha’s black community and challenges others to carry on the struggle — with or without her.

“I’m 71 now and my health is failing,” she says. “The torch has to be passed. It’s just a matter of keeping things going.”

And keeping the dream alive.

Like a mighty flame still burning brightly — old soul Bertha Calloway illuminates the past and casts a light on the future.

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