By: Kyle Berube
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Under the shadows of the Lincoln Financial Group building, on South Elm Street, sits the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. In the shell of an old F.W. Woolworth Co. storefront, a desolate lobby presents itself, reminding one of an imposing and powerful New York City business office rather than the entryway to a museum.
On Feb. 1, 1960, four African-American students at North Carolina A&T (now known as Greensboro Four) staged a sit-in at the then F.W. Woolworth Co. lunch counter, sparking a major trend in the civil rights movement. Fast forward to Feb. 1, 2010, when the International Civil Rights Center & Museum held its grand opening in honor of the 50th anniversary of these sit-ins. Now, just five years later, it remains quiet, saddled with a nearly $2 million loan debt to the city government.
A Museum struggles to remain afloat
Since its initial formation under Melvin “Skip” Alston and Earl Jones back in 1993, under the auspices of Sit-In Movement Inc., the ICRCM has received funding from the city of Greensboro. The museum is dedicated to the American struggle for both civil and human rights. Its main focus is the remnants of the F.W. Woolworth Co. lunch counter where the Greensboro Four staged a sit-in that changed the face of the civil rights movement.
According to annual reports, attendance at the museum has fallen drastically since its opening. In 2010 the museum reported almost 63,000 visitors, while in 2014 it reported only 41,000 attendees. The museum has never brought in more than $385,000 per year in revenue from ticket sales.
Margaret Moffett, at the Greensboro News and Record, connected the dots about the museum’s debts. She discovered that between 2013 and 2014, the city loaned about $1.25 million to the museum in order to help with its budgeting and financial issues. The museum is set to receive a final loan of $250,000 this summer, creating a grand total of $1.5 million loaned in just three years. The goal date for repayment of these loans is June 30, 2016, but there is an agreement between the ICRCM and the City of Greensboro stating that one dollar of the loan will be forgiven for every dollar raised in private donations. In the coming months alone, the ICRCM owes approximately $131,000 to Wells Fargo, $50,000 to the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, and $783,000 to Carolina Bank. That totals almost $1 million owed before June 30 of this year. Financial statements from November 2014 state that the museum needs $500,000 to pay staff and operate for 5 months.
So what does this mean? It means that the museum owes a lot of money to a lot of people, and it do not have sufficient funds to return the money to its lenders. Things are looking grim. In several city council meetings, the community has called for an entire clearing and restructuring of the museum’s board of directors. Some have even called for Greensboro mayor, Nancy Vaughan, to resign as mayor because of her involvement on the museum’s board. One of only a few major museums focusing on civil rights across the country, its survival is imperative to the expansion of museums in other places, like Memphis and Washington D.C.
A preview gallery of the museum.
Investing in the future
Brandon Brockington is a tour specialist and curatorial associate at the museum, and he has been working with the ICRCM pretty much since the beginning. He started as a spoken word poet and performer working at different events held there since the grand opening and became a tour guide after becoming enraptured by the powerful history of the museum.
“When I took a tour, that just opened my mind completely because I didn’t know any of this history,” Brockington said. Out of a group of 30 trainees, he was the only tour guide to actually finish the training. The tour guides have in-depth knowledge of a very advanced and interactive museum. In his time here, he has staged several events at the museum, including a Harlem Renaissance-esque poetry slam and various phonathons to raise funds. His performance troupe at the museum has also put on plays and live exhibits about civil rights.
Brockington is not too concerned about the financial struggles of the museum. He is a firm believer that when the world is coming after the museum, it must be on the cusp of greatness. “When you are under attack like that,” he said, “it’s usually because you are doing something right.” Whenever he has experienced life’s many tribulations it was always because “something magical was about to happen,” he said. He credits the museum’s mindset to not give up as the reason that it can push through any issue.
He is developing many different plans to get the community, with a particular focus on the schools, involved and showing up at the museum. The museum currently has initiatives with local schools, where employees set up tours for elementary, middle and high school students to talk with them about civil rights in different capacities. He views the impact he can have on the youth as the most important thing he is doing through his work at the museum. They will be the ones who will lead the dialogue of equality for generations to come. Museum staff members are also launching an outreach program where members of the staff go to different schools who may not be able to get to the museum otherwise. Additionally, they are using a live virtual tour where students all across the nation can get to see the museums different exhibits.
His favorite thing about giving tours? Brockington said, “You meet people from all over the world, all the time, every day. There is nothing better than that.” He went on to say how touched he is to see people from all different walks of life, who have many commonalities while being so different.
CLICK HERE: The freedom riders journey.
The journey of the Freedom Riders from Washington D.C. through the deep south. (Kyle Berube for MapBox)
A trip into the past
My tour guide’s name was Tay, a shortened name that she chose for privacy reasons. It was exceedingly obvious that I was on her last tour of the day, and that she was ready to start her weekend, but you can’t hold that against her – it happens to everyone. “American history was, and still is, a complex tapestry,” she told us. “If you peel back the layers, you will see the trials and tribulations of a conflicted history.”
She lead my group on a seemingly never-ending tour. She took us through all of the exhibits about the movement. The museum is a sight to be seen: full of interactive exhibits, state-of-the-art interactive displays, mirrors that turn into TVs, disappearing walls and interactive quizzes. It begins to become apparent where some of the expenses have manifested themselves. Tay assured me that these types of exhibits are necessary today to get people away from their phones and to focus on the museum. No one wants to read a bunch of placards anymore (a thought that I agree with to the highest extent).
At the end of our tour she urged me to get into action. “We must all do our parts to change our own opinions,” she said. “With the knowledge that we have and the experiences that we have been through, we must make sure these things do not occur anywhere else in the world.” Her words rang true to me as I thought about events like riots in Ferguson and in much of the Middle East. There is still a lot of work to be done, but we can make it happen.
CLICK HERE: The civil rights movement timeline.
An interactive timeline of several of the major events of the civil rights movement. (Kyle Berube for TimeToast)
Plan a visit.
Do you want to know more about the museum? Visit their website. Better yet, visit the museum on South Elm Street in Greensboro. Prices are affordable, between $8 and $12 per ticket, and it is open during standard business hours from Monday to Saturday. Help keep this crucial and important museum afloat.