Tensions were high in the board room of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum that Monday night of Nov. 10.
So were the stakes.
And yet there was also a feeling of inevitability.
Lacy Ward, the museum’s popular executive director, had been on the job for fewer than six months. But the museum’s founders had clearly seen him as a threat almost immediately, some board members said.
They perceived slights and insults in his smallest, routine actions. They moved to limit his authority. Few board meetings were complete until grievances against him had been aired.
Now, at this specially called meeting, they were determined to finally fire him.
“It was clear that it really didn’t matter why anymore,” one board member said. “It had become a witch hunt.”
The museum’s founders and their allies on the board had plenty of complaints against Ward, ranging from the reasonable to the conspiratorial.
He spoke too frankly in public about the museum’s financial troubles, they said. He wasn’t deferential enough to board members, especially its founding members. Some questioned his vision for the museum’s future and believed he could be part of a plot to usurp the board’s control and change the museum’s message to attract a larger, whiter audience.
A majority of the board had not been moved by those complaints, at least not sufficiently to fire Ward, who most agreed had been doing good work.
But now, in this latest meeting, Ward’s detractors were wielding a new weapon: charges of inappropriate behavior with a female museum staffer, even of sexual harassment.
Conflict from the start
The International Civil Rights Center & Museum was the brainchild of Melvin “Skip” Alston and Earl Jones. The two formed Sit-In Movement Inc. in 1993 to buy the former Woolworth’s building on Elm Street where four black N.C. A&T students famously staged a sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter in 1960, an iconic moment in the national civil rights movement.
But after opening to great fanfare in 2010, the museum drew significantly fewer visitors than its founders and organizers anticipated. Fundraising was also a challenge, and the museum found itself losing money and burdened with debt. By 2013 the museum seemed to be on the verge of closing when it turned to the Greensboro City Council for a $1.5 million loan.
The city agreed to loan the museum $1.5 million in installments for 21/2 years. It also agreed to forgive a dollar of the loan for every dollar the museum raised before July 1, 2015.
But there were conditions.
In setting terms, the city looked to a report by Alexander Haas, a fundraising consultant hired by the museum in 2012. Haas’ report outlined ways the museum could shore up its finances, attract more community support and build a more stable future.
The museum needed “additional pillars of financial support, broader representation among its leadership and greater community buy-in to fully realize its mission and achieve long-term sustainability,” Haas wrote.
His report suggested term limits for all board members, making the board of directors into trustees and expanding the original 14-member board to at least 23 members, with an eye toward creating more diversity.
Haas’ report also explicitly stated that museum co-founders and board members Jones and Alston were doing too much of the fundraising and that more professional staff should be hired to shoulder that responsibility.
Working from the Haas report, the city insisted as a condition of its loan that the board be expanded and that the mayor and city manager — whoever happened to hold those roles — be appointed members.
The museum’s board reluctantly agreed, though its founders and some original board members complained that the conditions were unnecessary and represented a racially motivated double standard.
That led to the hiring of Ward. He had served as the superintendent of the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Alabama. He also had led the Robert Russa Moton Museum in Farmville, Va., which commemorates a 1951 walkout of black students that helped lead to the to the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education decision that desegregated schools.
Ward agreed with the reforms outlined in the Haas report and moved to implement them. That brought him into conflict with the museum’s founders and some of its original board members.
That faction of the board was uncomfortable with Ward’s public frankness about the condition of the museum, several board members said, particularly when he discussed the details of its financial health.
Ward thought his candor with the public would, as suggested in the Haas report, engender trust and translate into more support from a wider range of private donors and foundations.
But some members of the board observed that the museum’s founders considered it “talking out of school.” They read the Haas report’s suggested improvements and Ward’s push for them as personal criticisms of how they had handled museum business to that point.
Original board members explicitly told Ward they did not like the way he spoke about the museum’s dire financial situation in public, to the City Council and to potential donors. Other board members, particularly Jones, insisted on being in on calls and donor conversations that Ward thought were more properly the territory of the museum’s professional staff.
Allegations that Ward acted inappropriately with a female museum employee first came to the board at a meeting on Oct. 20. Everyone in the room agreed the situation was serious and sobering.
If true, Ward’s behavior could besmirch the museum’s reputation, even entangle it in an expensive and humiliating lawsuit.
But the facts of the case and how they were gathered and laid out didn’t seem to some board members to be the stuff of a courtroom drama.
They felt like a dark comedy.
“At one point we were literally discussing whether Lacy had glanced down a woman’s low-cut blouse when she bent over to pick something up,” one board member said. “As serious as it was, at that point it became hard to take it seriously.”
Some skepticism was inevitable.
Reports of Ward’s inappropriate behavior hadn’t come to the board through complaints from any female employee. Instead, board members said, they came from John Swaine, then the museum’s chief financial officer.
Swaine is a member of the museum’s old guard who, like its founders, has denounced questions about the museum’s finances as racist. He was seen by some board members as anything but impartial in the growing conflict between Ward and the museum’s founders.
Swaine told board members that Ward, who is married, had repeatedly asked a female employee to have lunch and dinner with him.
Ward bought that same woman a dress with his personal credit card when she had complained that she didn’t have any clothes nice enough to attend a museum gala, Swaine reported.
Most board members agreed that none of that, even if true, rose to the level of sexual harassment or to the creation of a hostile work environment. Some argued it didn’t even sound professionally inappropriate.
Wanting to know more, the board voted to investigate the claims.
But no one told Ward his behavior was being investigated.
That wouldn’t come to his attention until a week later, when Jones sent Ward an email ordering him to not participate in a conference call with an investor in the museum.
“As you are aware, there is a review of personnel matters regarding your directorship,” Jones wrote in that email. “There was a unanimous vote of the museum board of directors at the last board meeting to investigate the issues raised.”
Jones wrote that Swaine and board treasurer Danny Duncan would handle the call.
“I have not received any notice from last week’s board meeting, but will be happy to address such matters when they are presented to me,” Ward wrote in an email reply to Jones.
Ward wasn’t alone.
Not all of the board’s 25 members had attended that meeting in October at which the investigation had been launched.
Absences aren’t uncommon on such a large board, where schedules can be difficult to coordinate. But several of the board members who missed that meeting weren’t informed of what had happened.
They first learned an investigation was underway when Ward copied his email reply to Jones to the entire board.
Some board members were taken aback by the news and annoyed they hadn’t been informed.
But board members and employees said that was routine for a board where proper meeting minutes were never made available, and communication to board members tended to be selective and driven by political alliances.
“I have served on a number of large boards,” one board member said. “I would say this is the most chaotic and least professional I have ever seen.”
The female employee at the center of the allegations against Ward was interviewed at least twice by groups of board members, including the board’s chairwoman, Deena Hayes-Greene.
According to one board member, the woman told those interviewing her that she never considered Ward’s behavior inappropriate. She told them she felt more pressure from the board to condemn Ward’s behavior than she ever felt from Ward himself, one board member and a museum employee close to the process said.
When the interviews were discussed at that decisive board meeting on Nov. 10, fierce debate erupted. Members argued about what constitutes inappropriate behavior or harassment and whether anything Ward was alleged to have done would qualify.
It was at this point, according to board members, that Hayes-Greene interjected with a story.
She had attended the Wyndham Championship golf tournament in August with her sister and Ward, she said.
When her sister bent over to pick something up from the ground, Hayes-Greene said, Ward looked down her low-cut blouse.
Hayes-Greene’s story amounted to unnecessary piling on, one board member said, and made it clear that a faction of the original board was now determined to hurl accusations until Ward was fired.
“It seemed like they were really just reaching now,” another board member recalled.
One of the largest sticking points for several board members was that Ward was not allowed to respond to any of the allegations against him, either during the investigation or at a meeting of the board.
“The issue was raised by several board members that it didn’t seem to be fair or appropriate to move to termination and have a set of allegations out there that the employee hadn’t had the chance to respond to,” one board member said.
Among those who protested was George Johnson, a professor at Elon University’s School of Law.
Johnson threatened to resign from the board if Ward wasn’t given an opportunity to address the allegations.
But a majority of the board wasn’t interested in hearing Ward’s side of the story, some board members said, and declined to let him speak to the board on the issue.
“The fact that they wouldn’t even hear what he had to say, that was when it was obvious that it wasn’t really about this issue,” another board member said. “It was about a lot of other issues.”
Some board members said they found sudden accusations about Ward’s personal behavior suspicious. The accusations were difficult to believe, coming only after months of unrelated criticisms of Ward from the museum’s founders had failed to find traction with the full board.
“It felt like they found something they thought they could use against him,” one board member said. “It felt like he was being railroaded.”
When the vote was finally called on Ward’s termination, the board voted, 12-9, to fire him.
It was disappointing but not necessarily surprising, some board members said.
“I think some people on the board were voting not based on these issues, these allegations, but because they knew it had to be Lacy or the founders,” one board member said. “They knew they couldn’t go on together and that they would never stop trying to get rid of him.”
The board accomplished that. But it set into motion a much larger controversy.
Focus on museum
Johnson, the law professor from Elon, decided he had seen enough of the board’s work. He resigned.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan, disturbed by the firing and concerned for the museum’s direction without Ward in place, began contacting her fellow members of City Council.
The city should offer to take over management of the museum, Vaughan suggested. Council members agreed that the idea merited further discussion, and Vaughan made the offer on Nov. 15 at a meeting of the museum board and announced it in a news conference that afternoon.
The board voted to table her motion — by one vote.
Board members have since said they do not intend to consider it again.
Jones denounced the offer as patronizing and racist.
The Greensboro chapter of the NAACP mounted its own news conference at City Hall to denounce the offer.
But when Vaughan appeared at the news conference and offered to talk with them, NAACP members had a series of meetings with the mayor that she said have been cordial, frank and productive.
Russ Stellfox, one of the newer members of the museum’s board, said in an interview Friday that Vaughan’s overture to the museum board deserves further consideration.
“The mayor’s offer for the city to take over the museum is something that needs to be looked at,” Stellfox said. “Any good opportunity for the museum to become financially sound needs to be considered.”
He also recommended approaching N.C. A&T and UNCG about taking active roles in funding and running the museum.
“The museum itself is really an amazing building. It needs to be preserved,” Stellfox said. “There’s a lot of intelligent people on the board. There’s also a lot passion. If we can get the passion settled down, I think we can get something done.”
Ward, for his part, has retreated from the spotlight since his ouster and has declined interviews on the subject.
He again on Friday declined to discuss his firing with the News & Record, saying only that the focus should be about the museum’s future, not on him.
“My hope is just that the conversation that is happening right now, the conversation and the deliberation that needs to happen, leads to the Greensboro community having a board and a museum that are accountable to and representative of the entire community,” Ward said.
“Whether I am there isn’t the important thing. None of us are going to be alive 50 years from now,” he said.
“The important thing is that hopefully through the discussion that’s happening right now, the museum will be.”