FORT WAYNE – The doors are still locked, and the signs outside the African/African-American Historical Society Museum state the museum is open for tours by appointment only.
The closing is temporary, said Pompia Durril, chairman and president of the museum’s board of directors.
The organization has been rife with turmoil since the beginning of the year, and it remains unclear who is in charge.
One group backs Durril, his board of directors and the museum’s new director, John Aden. The other group backs Hana Stith, who was a co-founder and director/curator until she said she was forced out and the locks were changed on the museum in February. Her supporters have formed their own board of directors.
The two groups and their attorneys have been in discussions for the past two months.
Up for debate is a vote Feb. 11 where 64 of the museum’s 146 members voted to dissolve Durril’s board and to elect five new board members.
Durril and the board’s attorney, Pete Mallers, said the board didn’t have enough votes to overthrow the old board because they needed a majority of the entire membership, not a majority of the 83 who showed up to vote.
Stith and her group are represented by attorney A. Dale Bloom. They met and formed a new board just days after the vote was taken, but when Stith showed up for work the following Monday, Feb. 18, the locks had been changed.
We’ve been out ever since, she said.
Stith would like to be back working in the museum with her board in place, she said.
This has been my life and passion, she said, and I am so saddened and embarrassed by this.
Stith organized and led tours since the museum opened 13 years ago, and for the past three years has been assisted by docent Lola Curry-Bates, who is no longer an employee. Stith and Curry-Bates were the only paid staff at the museum.
In a letter from Durril dated March 12, Curry-Bates said she was told her services were no longer needed as a result of museum restructuring. The letter said that as jobs were being reviewed, developed and posted, she was welcome to reapply for her old position.
Curry-Bates said she would consider applying for her old position but not under the current administration.
I fully support the museum, but not the current management, she said.
Durril’s board of directors has dwindled from 11 to eight members since the start of the year, with some resigning over the controversy, he said.
The board is in the process of recruiting new members, Durril said.
The board – which Durril maintains is the official administration – meets monthly and will continue to move forward, he said.
Mallers said he thinks there is a chance for the two groups to find common ground if all are acting in the best interest of the museum.
It’s going to take compromise from both sides, but I’m confident the result of our meetings will be a proposed agreement, Mallers said. We have a number of people with the best interest of society at heart.
The group split when Durril announced in January that Stith had retired at the end of last year and that the board had hired Aden, a professional historian, to lead the museum.
The next day, Stith fired back with a news release stating she had not retired but had been fired. Members of the tight-knit community quickly chose sides and several terse meetings were held.
Durril said he and the board are happy with the way things are going and especially with the appointment of Aden.
He fuels our need for change, he said.
Future plans, he said, include a more active website with virtual tours, classes the public can engage in externally and more active museum displays.
Aden is busy creating policies and procedures and writing grants, Durril said.
Both groups will meet in the near future, though no date has been set, Mallers said.
Stith and Miles Edwards founded the museum in 1975 after realizing that the Allen County Historical Museum had not preserved African-American history. The museum, at 436 E. Douglas St., opened in February 2000.
When contacted by The Journal Gazette, Aden and Edwards declined to comment on the issue while mediation is taking place.