A schism forms within the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People

Defying Lavonia Allison

| December 09, 2009

On Thursday night, members of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People could finally demonstrate on paper ballots what many have hesitated to say out loud: The city's most historic organization is in jeopardy. It's time for a change in leadership, even if that means standing against longtime Chairwoman Lavonia Allison—arguably one of the most powerful political leaders in Durham.

The group's contentious chairwoman has overstayed her welcome, several local leaders say. For the first time in a half dozen years, a member of the committee is challenging Allison's 12-year reign: The Rev. Melvin Whitley, a self-described grassroots organizer with a record of tackling crime in his neighborhood in Northeast Central Durham, wants to take charge.

Whitley and his supporters have described Allison as a passionate and committed activist, but also as a divisive leader whose desire for control has alienated the committee's formerly sizeable membership. Allison's ironclad grip on the committee, her critics charge, has diluted the agenda that has characterized its 74 years: advancing educational equality and employment opportunities for black residents, holding public officials accountable to taxpayers and mentoring the region's future black leaders.

"A lot of changes have happened in the past 30, 40 years. But the issues of racism, sexism still prevail," said Durham City Councilman Howard Clement, who supports Whitley for chairman. "The committee is uniquely formed to address those issues. But in recent years that hasn't been the case. We need to get back to what we used to do."

For years, political observers have speculated whether the credibility and influence of the committee is waning due to shrinking membership, diminishing cooperation with other activist groups and infighting. What goes on behind the organization's closed-door meetings is out of view to many, as it is open only to Durham residents of African-American descent. Recently, several high-profile members of the group questioned the fairness and validity of the committee's endorsements in last month's municipal elections, in which Mayor Bill Bell nearly lost its support. The committee also favored City Council candidate Donald Hughes, a recent college graduate with no previous professional experience in public office over two-term incumbent Cora Cole-McFadden. Hughes is the son of committee member Jackie Wagstaff, who ran against Cole-McFadden for City Council in 2001.

In recent weeks, there have been increased calls for new leadership in open letters to the committee, blogs and newspaper columns. Thursday's election, unquestionably, will be a turning point.

"What's at stake, in essence, is the life of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People," said Cole-McFadden, who supports Whitley's candidacy. "It will determine citizen participation in the committee ... It will determine how much we care about what happens to black people in the Durham community, and folks who don't have a voice ... It will determine whether we are at peace among ourselves or at war."

Both Clement and Cole-McFadden, who won re-election last month, were careful to say they weren't anti-Allison—only that they are pro-Whitley.

Allison did not respond to several requests from the Independent seeking interviews about the election. Her tenure has capped a lifetime of political and community work for African-American residents. She was a professor and trustee at N.C. Central University and has received several prestigious plaudits, including a 2006 Humanitarian award from the N.C. branch of the NAACP. But the hard-bitten, unyielding manner that might have long ago won Allison admirers and influence has now become a hindrance to the committee's success, members say.

Nearing 80, Allison still attends plenty of public meetings of city and county boards with stacks of papers in hand, questioning elected leaders on development and economic incentives. She often pushes boundaries by exceeding time limits on her comments, interrupting or grumbling audibly from her seat. Occasionally, an elected official will grant Allison's demands, whether out of deference, intimidation or just to keep the peace.

"Dr. Allison is a very effective advocate. She's not an effective leader," said Darius Little, who recently ran against Clement for City Council and was not endorsed by the committee.

Little said he spent the past year working closely with Allison as a volunteer in the committee's office. He lamented the lack of organization within the group and confirmed complaints by Whitley and others that many of the nine subcommittees established to address issues such as affordable housing, economic development and youth affairs are idle.

Little says he doesn't trust Allison based on several factors, including a 2001 investigation by the Indy revealing that as a landlord, Allison didn't correct unsafe living conditions in properties she managed and even went so far as to retaliate against tenants who reported violations to the city by evicting them.

Though he praises her long record of service, Whitley calls Allison vindictive, intimidating and divisive. The organization has "nowhere near the clout it once had," he said. "That's one of the reasons I'm running."

Whitley, a 61-year-old outreach minister at Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, says he's been a member of the committee for eight years and also recently served as treasurer of the Durham People's Alliance, another progressive group, with membership open to all Durham residents.

Critics of Whitley have pointed out his criminal past. He has been arrested 18 times on assault charges and indulged a crack cocaine habit for three years in the 1990s. Whitley says he has been clean since 1997, when he moved from Raleigh to Durham and sought a life in the ministry. Since then, he's worked with citizens and police to curb crime on some of the most drug-infested streets of East Durham. He also implored city and county leaders to create a jobs training program in the unused Holton Middle School, which opened recently, and managed a coordinated campaign to get Clement, Cole-McFadden, City Councilman Mike Woodard and Mayor Bell re-elected last month.

Whitley says if he defeats Allison, he'll focus on grooming other committee members for leadership positions, giving them experience and training. He says he'll cooperate with other community groups in Durham, such as the People's Alliance.

Some Durham residents have aired suspicions of Whitley's work with the People's Alliance, which is racially mixed. But Whitley said collaboration with other groups is key to accomplishing goals.

"There are plenty of committee members who are also members of the P.A.," Whitley said. "I don't think [critics] can find any record anywhere that I'm tearing down the black community."

Whitley also promises to be open with his members, making agendas, minutes and financial statements readily available. The availability of records to committee members has long been an issue, as has the political endorsements process.

Little has expressed suspicion over the committee's endorsements process, specifically in the city election last month. In recent years, the committee implemented new rules requiring that members of its political subcommittee attend at least one meeting per quarter to vote in endorsements. Although many participants, including Little and Cole-McFadden, said they believed they had sufficient attendance to vote, they were not permitted to do so. The rule left just 10 people on the political subcommittee to recommend a slate of candidates to the committee's general membership, which would then approve or overrule the choices.

After the election, Allison said she would supply the rules to Little if he made a formal request. Little e-mailed Allison a letter but has received no response: "No phone call, no e-mail ... no smoke signals. Nothing," he said.

The committee also came under fire for its endorsements in 2008, when it backed only male candidates for the Board of County Commissioners, and in 2003, when its members initially supported Diane Catotti for a City Council seat but changed its endorsement to Republican Thomas Stith.

Such inconsistencies may erode the committee's clout, or even backfire, said Frank Hyman, a political observer and former city councilman.

"I would say that [the committee's] ability to turn out votes for candidates that have African-American support is still very good. But because they've made the political endorsement meetings less democratic, their endorsements have become more erratic and contrary to the interests to the average African-American voter," said Hyman, who managed the 2008 county commissioner campaign for Brenda Howerton. Howerton won without the committee's backing.

"These recent decisions could be dismantling some of the trust that African-American voters have had in the recommendations of the committee," Hyman said.

The committee might need to try harder to engage young professionals, beyond the recent creation of its stagnant page on Facebook. Little said he and Hughes are the only two active members of the group under age 40. Just last month, Little said, he invited five young professionals to a meeting, but his guests' preconceptions of committee infighting were confirmed when Wagstaff physically threatened Whitley, cussing at him inside the church where the meeting was held. The session ended abruptly, both Little and Whitley said. Wagstaff did not respond to requests from the Indy for comment.

More than 100 people are expected to turn out for the election, as the organization's constitution allows any African-American resident of Durham County to attend and vote.

In addition to Whitley and Allison, longtime committee member Keith Corbett said early this week he is considering running for chairman. Corbett, executive vice president at the nonprofit Center for Responsible Lending, was an officer in the committee but left years ago to avoid working under Allison, he said.

Although Corbett, Little and others have been outspoken on the state of the committee and their concerns for its future, most members have appeared to observe the historic privacy of the organization. But on Thursday, provided the shield of an anonymous voting process, members of the committee may give a bolder representation of their true feelings.

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Comments (5)

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I heard a person say something once about how funny some people within the black community act in certain way toward others in Durham is very common. And it is very true. I have met Dr. Allison once during a meeting with the school board of the Durham Public Schools. She and her companions were just as rude and disrespectful as they come. When the issue of race came up,I knew right there how funny and how stupid members of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People acted. As a people(with black people especially in this backwards town) how are we supposed to get past the race issue in Durham with this behavior? Within the black community? Do we set the example for others?

I have been in several meetings with school board members not to mention sat in meetings with people of the city council and others too, and the way they conducted themselves during a meeting was something out of a three-ring circus,with people acting like fools in front of the media,not to mention in front of others and right in front of the mayor himself. And folks on these committees can't figure out why this town has such a huge negativity among its citizens,especially within the black community,and the board members who basically haven't contributed to not one thing for this city. They know who I'm referring to here. This has been going on long before our current Mayor ever came to office. And it is an embarrassment.

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Posted by rgj5366 on 01/05/2010 at 2:40 PM

My experience with Dr. Allison is within the Durham Democrats. As a precinct chair, I have been at monthly Exec meetings. It is here that I first became aware of Dr. Allison.

From the first, I saw her as a person that was manipulative. A person whose only focus was to have her agenda heard and to annoy people enough that they would give into her just to shut her up.

The article described perfectly what I have seen...."pushes time limits on her comments, interupting or grumbling audibly from her seat."

I have sat near enough to her to have to ask her several times to please be quiet so I can hear the speaker. At a county convention last year during the proceedings, she constantly grumbled, stood up and spoke out of tern - disrupting the proceedings (Kevin Farmer has the patience of Jobe.)

At one particular Dem Exec meeting, she got into a loud argument with someone over a misunderstanding - which Dr. Allison took very personally. Someone behind me who was just attending the meeting asked if this happened a lot...to which I replied..."a lot." I also said that "she has a devisive attitude that causes a lot of frustration - esp. with the non-blacks." Dr. Allison was so upset that she left in a mad huff.

I think my most profound experience with her was at another exec meeting. It was after Obama had come to NCCU. She had flyer pictures of Obama that were very nice and could have been framed... I was sitting, waiting for the meeting. She was passing out the flyers. She handed them out to the black people around me, but did not offer one to me. I was speechless. I saw her do the same thing with some other people - giving them to black people and not to white people. I was even more speechless. How are we suppose to get past the race issue with this type of behavior?? a strong leader in the black community doing this???

We are all trying to get past the race issue..I am tired of feeling like I have to apologize for being white. Lots of people now understand what has happened in the past, but the younger adults are past this and do not need to hear the negativity that she releases.

I am glad that the the Committee is finally thinking about a change....it is time to progress, to make a new legacy for the Committee. I applaude their efforts and I hope they are successful.

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Posted by VMac on 12/14/2009 at 7:49 PM

OH PLEASE, Lavonia Allison is nothing more than a troublemaker. SHe disagrees with everything just to disagree. She is rude, makes unfounded arguements and likes to see herself in the public eye. She is not someone I would want representing me. She might have been good back in her day but I truly believe she has been losing it and it is time to step down and let someone else take over. I am sorry to have to put my comments this way but I want her to get a dose of her own medicine in the same rude way she phrases things!

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Posted by Caldon on 12/13/2009 at 12:08 PM

Dr. Lavonia Allison understands Durham politics and in her own way knows how to get things done, and if nothing else she has mastered the political art of agitation and is more than willing to make the status quo uncomfortable for our open enemies. Thus, in which to make the political playing field amenable for the disenfranchised and effective enough to push the African American electoral agenda (her strategies and tactics are to be reckoned as being highly politically savvy and no doubt successful). Allison knows how to maneuver on the local, state and federal political levels when it comes to forcing candidates to take the African American vote serious; thus, no one (in particular black candidates) who has ever run for an electoral position in a Durham political election has taken the endorsement from the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People for granted or lightly because they have a proven political track record of getting candidates elected to public office. Allison, perhaps unorthodox style of leadership may leave room for some justifiable criticism and this writer agrees that some revisions are needed in some areas, but her effectiveness must be measured in the number of local candidates that she has endorsed as Chair of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People that has been elected to public office. We do not need a passive reverend looking to get along and appear non-confrontational when we are in a crisis situation, but his primary objective is being desirable of appeasing the status quo. This is how this writer views Melvin Whitleythis is a political action group not churchwe are not looking for a watered down church leader who is interested in quoting scripture and not willing to lead as Yeshua Ben Yosef (Jesus the son of Joseph) who was a revolutionary and not some passive agent provocateur. He just didnt desire to get along with the system, but Jesus mission was to alter the system. This writer does not think Reverend Whitely has embraced a liberation theology and is willing to politically fight the enemy without tempered fear. There is nothing wrong with being confrontational and disagreeable in which to politically agitate the enemy (this at times keeps him off balance and make your actions unpredictable) and not just looking to play ball as usual. Some of these fly by night Negroes are just modern day Uncle Toms and sellouts looking to make a name for themselves and the only interest they have is their own. Whitley is an inexperienced newcomer and a novice to the Durham political scene who has no understanding of the political landscape of Durham; how can he have, when he has only lived in Durham for eight years. Yes, give me another term with Allison as Chairwomen of the Durham Committee, a proven warrior and fighter who has been on the frontline for decades. Since 1935 the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People has been led by prominent black families and I do not necessarily agree with its history of being a bourgeoisie inspired organization, in particular their history of cutting backroom deals, but much of what they have done benefitted the black grassroots. Allisons experience in Civil Rights and political activism should never be overlooked because Whitleys promise of being a kinder and gentler leader is typical words of an Uncle Tom. Moreover, even the notion of this type of leader, heading the Durham Committee signifies a betrayal of the long fought struggles against some vicious enemies who still exist but are well disguisedracism and discrimination havent gone anywhere and is well and alive. This writer is glad that this Negro did not get elected to head, perhaps the most powerful political action group in the southeast. Fahim Knight welcomes your comments and can be reached at fahimknight@yahoo.com. Stay Awake Until We Meet Again, Fahim A. Knight-EL, Chief Researcher Keeping It Real Think Tank Durham, NC

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Posted by Fahim Knight-EL on 12/11/2009 at 12:59 PM

IT SADDENS MY HEART TO READ ABOUT THE "SCHISM" WITHIN THE DCOAOP. HOWEVER ONE MUST REALIZE THAT MRS. ALLISON CONSIDERS THE COMMITTEE TO BE HER CHILD, BUT AS EVERY GOOD PARENT KNOWS YOU HAVE TO LET A CHILD SUFFER GROWING PAINS,MAKE MISTAKES, GET HURT,HEAL AND GO FORWARD. NO PARENT WANTS TO KILL IT'S OWN CHILD OR SEE THAT CHILD DIE BEFORE YOU(PARENT)DOES.ASK MRS. ALLISON WHAT WOULD NAT WHITE DO. HE NEVER HINDERED GROWTH, I.E.NEW TIMES REQUIRE NEW STRATEGIES WITH THE SAME OBJECTIVES.THIS TIME WITH NEW FACES. IN CHRIST

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Posted by A&T'73 on 12/09/2009 at 10:40 PM
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