Once more, with feeling

Seattle's African American Heritage Museum, born in one forcible occupation, is now threatened by another.

SAY THIS FOR THE current debacle in the 13-year-long struggle to create an African American museum in Seattle: There's a certain symmetry about it. For the past few months—in a replay of the struggle's 1985 origin, when a group of protesters snuck through a window of the boarded-up school in order to demand that it be turned into a museum—an occupation of sorts has been in progress at the old Colman School on 23rd Avenue South and Massachusetts Street in the Central Area. And the man at the helm this time around is Omari Tahir (also known as Tahir-Garrett), one of the 1985 protesters.

This time, however, Tahir has nowhere near the kind of community support he enjoyed back then, and he is acting expressly against the wishes of many former cohorts, who can't understand why Tahir would mount his protest just when it seems that museum might finally become a reality.

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The fiftyish activist and a handful of youngish supporters have installed themselves in a trailer behind the school, which until a few months ago served as an office for the museum's project director. Tahir intends to stay indefinitely, despite the fact that the museum board's sublease on the property expired on March 15. "It's going to be a very exciting next couple of months," he says gleefully.

Tahir claims that board chair Robert Flowers, a senior vice president at Washington Mutual Bank, is part of a "downtown clique" that has taken the project away from the "grassroots" and that may even be lining its pockets with a half-million dollars allocated by the city to the museum project. "We can't find out where the money went," he says.

Flowers and other board members dismiss Tahir's actions as a destructive power play. "Mr. Tahir believes he is the one who should control how it's done and who does it," says Charlie James, another 1985 protester who now sits on the 27-member board of the nonprofit known as the African American Heritage Museum and Cultural Center. Noting Tahir's propensity for identifying himself as the founder of the project, Michael Greenwood, a fellow board member and yet another 1985 protester, gripes: "Why he would say he founded something and then go out and destroy it is beyond me."

The board attempted to revoke Tahir's membership at a meeting last Wednesday that ended in disarray after a 40-minute rant by Tahir. He came bearing freshly minted incorporation papers for a new nonprofit with a new board, naming himself as president and his son Kwame Garrett as vice president.

Members of the original board insist that the project will go on. But this controversy has given it a serious credibility problem that has scared away potential funders and prompted the city to put half its funding on hold. "A lot of people have given up hope," says Eddie Rye Jr., a contractor and longtime activist probably best known for spearheading the name change of Empire Way to Martin Luther King Way.

THE MUSEUM EFFORT is a rather strange chapter in Seattle history, which in spite of its initial drama is not well known outside the Central Area. The protesters who broke into the school in 1985, a fluid group numbering between 10 and 20, lived there day and night for months, sustained by community members who supplied them with food, money, and kerosene heaters. The city expressed concern at first, but ultimately decided to do nothing. And so the group stayed in the building, off and on, for the next 10 years. Supporters like to call it the "longest occupation of a building in America."

What finally got them out was a commitment by the city to move on the idea. In 1995, after a task force set up by Mayor Norm Rice recommended that the museum be implemented, the city helped put together a nonprofit board and pledged seed money, the first chunk of which came through last year.

Soon after the board formed, a battle for control ensued, resulting in the ouster of its chair, Earl Debnam, a community activist who perhaps more than anyone has been identified over the years with this struggle. Tahir actively supported—some say engineered—that ouster. Now Tahir is attacking the new, establishment-oriented chair by playing on a downtown scandal, over the city-backed Nordstrom development, to suggest that the same crowd is misusing museum funding.

The charge has an intuitive appeal: The board has spent some $280,000, and the school, a massive turn-of-the-century brick building, remains derelict. And as Tahir points out, state auditor Brian Sonntag's office last month agreed to review how the city's money was spent in response to his complaints. What Tahir does not reveal, however, is that Sonn-tag's office already finished that review and "found nothing improper," according to assistant audit manager Jim Johnson. He checked a file on the project kept by the city's accounting office that tracks every expenditure down to the number of photocopies made—a file that Tahir could access through public disclosure laws.

Still, you can see in that file why Tahir might be annoyed. After years of uncompensated effort by him and others, the project has become the bailiwick of professionals who are being paid quite well indeed. The board hired a project director, Pat Chandler, at an annual salary of $48,000 (though she has stepped down because of this controversy, leaving the project without a staff). Architects, marketing consultants, lawyers, and contractors have come on board for $100 and $150 an hour.

The group got the ball rolling by writing grant requests, patching the school's roof, negotiating a purchase agreement with the School District and holding a $3,000 fund-raising kick-off soirée at a chic club, the Ruins.

IN SPITE OF ALL THIS, they have not yet come up with a concrete concept for what the museum will be beyond this cotton-candy description in a January briefing paper: "The museum and cultural center will speak to the African American community about redefining, rediscovering and healing, and to a multicultural world about re-education." It's unclear whether the project will focus on art or historical archives, the Northwest or Africa, traditional displays or service programs of the type offered by El Centro de la Raza (which also began with a community takeover of a school).

"I don't think we're at the point yet where we say this is what it's going to be," says board chair Robert Flowers, maintaining that much more community input is needed for that decision.

If Tahir and his "grassroots" contingent find that frustrating, their "12-point program" seems too unrealistic to offer an alternative. It calls for "a state-of-the-art, community-owned and -operated mass media network, including recording studio, radio station, visual/graphic arts studio, television station, newspaper, and Internet services." And that's just the beginning; the list also includes a free medical clinic, restaurant, movie theater, and vocational center. "Do you know how many radio stations the dominant white community has?" Tahir asks. "Do you know how many mass communication institutions they have? Well, I don't understand why it's a problem when African Americans say they're going to have one TV station."

As for whether his grand plans are financially feasible, Tahir says, "It doesn't have anything to do with money. It costs $43,000 a year to keep one individual in youth detention. So we feel we can take some of that money and make sure the youth don't end up down there."

It seems apparent, though, that this controversy has a lot to do with money—and who gets it. "All these people only showed up after the fact when the money showed up," says Michael Brown, who sits on Tahir's alternate board. "The money hasn't filtered through to the grassroots people." Brown argues that since no one can be trusted with the funds, his group might as well get them: "My personal opinion is, give us the money and we'll mess it up."

Some progress, after 13 years.

Related Links:

Story on the museum from the Free Press


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