GREENSBORO — When four young black men from N.C. A&T sat down at a whites-only lunch counter in downtown, they sparked a fight for civil rights that has reverberated for 60 years.
That legacy gives a strength of purpose to John Swaine, CEO of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum.
The museum, which is in its 10th year, is now on relatively smooth financial terrain, earning a profit and expanding its educational programs to the community.
These days, Swaine concentrates on building a brighter future, clear of a city loan that divided the community over the museum’s relationship with local government.
But he faces ongoing challenges and pressure to keep contributions rolling in as he tries to expand the profile of the 91-year-old building on Elm Street.
“Difficult is an understatement,” Swaine said of his more than five years as CEO in a recent interview. “I am grateful for having to go through it because it changed my outlook. ... I had taken for granted that this was a powerful institution with a powerful story — and people wanting to find something to come together over.
“That is not necessarily always the case. You’ve got to constantly engage them.”
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Just like the fight for equality the museum commemorates, building an institution to honor that history was, it seems, never meant to be easy.
Historically, the institution has struggled with money issues and bad publicity as it sought to stand on its own.
On Feb. 1, 1960, when the four A&T students decided to launch their nonviolent effort to integrate the Woolworth’s lunch counter, they likely had no idea they would create a shrine to civil rights progress.
Once the store’s manager decided to allow African Americans to eat alongside white customers in July 1960, the lunch counter became a touchstone to an indelible moment in Greensboro — and the country’s — history.
By 1993, the moment had faded. The lunch counter had stopped serving food and was facing an uncertain future.
Enter Melvin “Skip” Alston and Earl Jones, community leaders who wanted to protect the store from the inevitable wrecking ball.
When the store closed in early 1994, the duo led an effort to buy the building for $700,000.
The next year, an organization called the Sit-In Movement began an international fundraising campaign to turn the building into a civil rights museum with an eye toward opening in 1998.
But the International Civil Rights Center & Museum wouldn’t debut until Feb. 1, 2010.
The years in between were punctuated by one issue after another.
Museum officials found they had a serious problem with a leaky basement and in 2005 announced they would need an extra $6 million for the repair project and to prepare the building to meet the standards for affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution.
In 2006, officials announced a fundraising campaign with a $12.5 million goal.
In 2009, in the museum’s most complicated deal, two investment groups agreed to buy $10 million in tax credits linked to the project. Local foundations and a variety of corporations made $4 million in new pledges.
The museum was able to open in 2010, but it was soon feeling financial strains.
By 2013, the museum had asked for a $1.5 million forgivable loan from the city, which elected officials approved in September of that year.
The effort to pay off that loan would consume much of the next five years as museum leaders sought contributions that would retire a dollar of city debt for every dollar raised.
In the meantime, relations between city officials and the museum’s board would become icy after Mayor Nancy Vaughan announced in 2014 a proposal for the city to take over operation of the museum.
Vaughan and four council members held a news conference announcing the proposal, saying the museum was faltering financially.
The museum’s board voted quickly and without discussion to reject the city’s officer.
Jones said at the time: “It does not reflect the reality of the museum. We are stable financially, and we have a steady stream of revenue coming in — and we are continuing our effort to raise money.”
In 2016, the museum said it had turned a profit and announced in 2018 it had retired its debt to the city.
Since that time, the city has had no further involvement in the museum’s affairs and does not contribute to or audit its finances.
Vaughan said last week she considers that a closed chapter and now has cordial relations with the museum’s principals.
Swaine said the loan was a learning experience, but a necessary one.
“When we thanked the residents for the forgivable loan of $1.5 million, that was a critical investment into the infrastructure at the time by the city to move the institution forward,” he said. “It is now doing far better.”
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Alston, who is a Guilford County commissioner, said in a recent interview that the International Civil Rights Center & Museum is a success, in part, because of its close relationship with the Smithsonian.
In the 1990s, his group donated a stool and a section of the lunch counter for an exhibit about the sit-ins.
“That’s international exposure for Greensboro,” he said. “That’s why we have so many people that come here from all across the country.”
Attendance was up by more than 30% last year, Swaine said, to 75,000.
With a sense of humor borne of struggle, Swaine said it’s good to see growing interest.
“We have seen a significant increase last year, and 2018 was a remarkable year. If there was ever a time to be afraid, 2020 is it,” he joked.
But he is genuinely hopeful every year when the center’s annual fundraising gala, its biggest event, rolls around on Feb. 1.
The 2020 event is especially significant because it marks the 60th anniversary of the sit-ins and the museum’s 10th.
With a $1.5 million annual budget, Swaine said contributions are a mainstay beyond regular tourist revenue.
In difficult times, the museum operated under a collection of five partnerships and nonprofits designed to serve a variety of financial functions for its complicated funding structure.
Now, with the tax credit deal finished and the city loan over, Swaine said, the center operates under only two entities: Sit-In Movement and Civil Rights Museum LLC.
Sit-In Movement brings in about $500,000 a year from contributions and fundraising events. The gala alone raises between $300,000 and $400,000 a year.
Civil Rights Museum brings in around $800,000.
The rest of the center’s money comes from grants and other revenues, Swaine said.
The museum still faces challenges before it can become a formal Smithsonian affiliate, however.
The building’s heating and air-conditioning system needs repair as it ages.
With hundreds of artifacts and fragile displays throughout, a museum like this is always dependent on its climate-control system. Any glitches can damage everything from the original lunch counter to the KKK robe and hood in a display case.
And the inefficient system leads to what may be the center’s most unlikely big expense: $200,000 a year in utility costs.
“It’s primarily from the way the facility was designed,” Swaine explained. “I’ve written grants to try to make modifications to control those costs. We know what we have to do, but it takes some support to make those adjustments.”
A good climate-control system is crucial when the Smithsonian evaluates museums for affiliation, especially when sending out traveling exhibits — the kind that could boost attendance in the International Civil Rights Center.
Swaine said ultimately the center will have to mount a capital campaign to raise enough money to replace the climate-control system.
“That is goal No. 1,” he said. “Cut utility consumption. It’s immediate. Because the funds that we earn are really good funds that are coming in to help us meet our short-term obligations.”
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Swaine, Alston and historian Will Harris recently sat in the center’s second-floor boardroom and talked about what the museum and its outreach programs mean to Greensboro.
Harris, a former college professor who works with Swaine to plan ongoing programs, said the International Civil Rights Center represents more to the city than a tourist attraction, though that is a key attribute.
“A city that has good race relations is good for business,” he said. “This is a place that has a history of progress and you’re not coming to some backward place.”
He said CEOs worry about whether their families will be comfortable in a city where they locate an operation.
“They’re going to feel comfortable here because this place is thought to be a progressive community,” Harris said. “We can certainly argue about what’s left to be done and what hasn’t worked and what has. This institution right here is a magnet ... for business expansion in Greensboro.”
Alston said the tour counts don’t tell the entire story of attendance. Every day, he said, people come to the museum for meetings, public forums and discussion programs.
He said the roughly $93 million Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, which opens downtown in March, will be a draw “but it’s not the draw that this center right here is. Every day.
“We’re getting ready to host a meeting with the candidates who are running for House District 6. That’ll pack that auditorium. We don’t count those people.”
The museum is also a must-see for national candidates as well. Presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke came to the museum while on the campaign trail, as did U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Harris said the museum is a vital community anchor for history that many people who are still living experienced in 1960.
“We actually have people come through here who say, ‘Oh, I was part of it.’ ”
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For Swaine and the museum’s board, future financial support is never a given. That’s why he said he works hard to write grants and reach out to the many donors who have contributed over the years.
Yet, he still believes something is missing, something that public support could provide.
Harris, who has worked in academic settings around the world, said he believes the museum is a gift to the community that should be appreciated.
“With all of the effort that John and his staff have put into this place, that ends up being a gift to the city,” he said. “This is private, not publicly funded. As an outsider I look at the effort that’s made here, the hours that are put in, the dedication and spirit of all the ways this benefits the city of Greensboro and Guilford County — that’s mostly a gift. And at least it needs to be celebrated and acknowledged.
“That’s what private organizations are supposed to be doing for their cities, but often they get a lot of public support.”
Swaine is looking to the future.
“This museum needs to grow,” he said. “It needs not to just sit here and think that we have arrived, because that’s just not the case. We do need ongoing support so that we can look forward and make bigger plans.”
Vaughan said she can see a case where the city might support the museum again.
“They are not only an important piece of our history,” she said, “but they represent an important piece of our future.”
Swaine’s wish list is very specific: an updated heating and air-condition system and, ultimately, a space to grow and add exhibits.
It’s the smaller things that could come more quickly. He has kept the staff small to rein in costs.
The museum employs four full-time employees compared with 14 when it opened and nine part-time workers compared with 14 when it opened.
“I had to just pare it down to the most talented staff I could get my hands on,” he explained.
The museum’s guides can get overwhelmed, and he is looking for ways to fill the gap between guided tours and self-guided tours. To that end, Swaine would like to acquire audio equipment so more people can get the full experience the museum has to offer at any time.
“The audio tours can go along with the guided tour at the same time,” he said.
Also, keeping the museum’s name in front of the public is key, Swaine stressed.
So the museum has acquired the money needed for a billboard on Interstate 40 as well as an advertisement at Piedmont Triad International Airport.
“The work that we do here is about economic vitality in the downtown area and in order for us to thrive we’ve got to advertise,” he said.
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Swaine is well-versed in the mechanics of the museum. But it’s the effect on the people who walk through its halls that brightens his face.
Swaine reflected on the museum’s impact on students.
He said that all of Guilford County’s eighth-grade students tour the museum every year. And he has worked there long enough that he now sees some of those former students as adults, bringing friends and family members.
He said the museum’s reach goes beyond Guilford County into places where news of historic civil rights struggles may not be so well-known.
A teacher from Davie County who had accompanied some students on a tour said they were changed after their visit to the museum. She wrote Swaine a letter, he said.
“They don’t see a lot of African Americans there,” he said the teacher told him. “And some of the words that were used previously in the classroom are not used anymore.”
The impact goes both ways.
“I’ve had African American students to tour here and many of them did not know that white people were involved in the civil rights struggle,” Swaine said. “If we’re having those kinds of impacts on the minds, we’re helping the schools turn out better students.”