Clinging to the helm of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People for the past 14 years, Lavonia Allison has made one thing very clear: She'll go when she damn well pleases.
Critics of her inflexible leadership have tried to oust her but have failed. Now, after decades as a prominent face for the group, it appears Allison is finally willing to let someone else take over.
Late last month, Allison called a special meeting for members of the DCABP to announce she won't be seeking another term when the group elects its next chairperson, as early as Dec. 8.
She didn't offer a specific reason, members said, nor did she respond to inquiries from the Indy. But being 81 may have been a factor.
"She has given freely of the time she's had," said former County Commissioner Deborah Giles, a longtime member of the committee. "She has certainly earned the rest."
Committee participants who have been frustrated with Allison's unyielding grip hope the 76-year-old organization—perhaps best known for the clout of its political action committee—can rekindle its prominence with a new leader.
"I greatly admire her historical contribution to the organization," said state Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr., whose parents were members of the committee. "But I think in time you recognize that you've reached a crossroads where you need to pass on the baton to the next generation."
Formed in 1935 as the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs, the organization remains among the most notable civil rights groups in the South.
"As I look at the landscape around the state, they really are the gold standard for African-American interest groups," said Chuck Watts, a Durham attorney whose maternal grandparents and parents were members. "You've got similar interest groups in every other major city, but none of them have the sort of depth, breadth and history that the Durham committee does."
The group's early leaders, with surnames including Harris, Spaulding and Pearson, launched campaigns to mobilize black voters and expand representation of the black community in city jobs and public boards. According to Durham County: A History of Durham County, North Carolina by Jean Bradley Anderson, the committee's voter education efforts propelled Durham to the highest black voter registration in the state in 1943. The historian also notes the organization worked with national civil rights groups, such as the NAACP and Congress of Racial Equality, to end segregation. When Durham city schools began integrating in 1959, Anderson writes, members of the committee were there to encourage parents to transfer their children to new schools, to help with paperwork and related court cases and to escort African-American students on their daunting first steps through the doorways of Durham's white schools.
The goals remain the same: to drive black voters to the polls, to hold public bodies accountable for their decisions and to ensure equal rights for African-Americans, from job creation to health care access. But the work takes a different shape, McKissick said.
"You're no longer talking about desegregating lunch counters and desegregating schools," he said. "Today you're talking about what's going on in education, but it may be related to how the school districts are set up, or how many African American students are being suspended."
A career educator herself, Allison has been a steadfast advocate for black students in Durham Public Schools, facing off with superintendents, the school board and even county commissioners on testing, funding, school discipline, graduation rates and more. But even as a perpetual presence in public meetings—few dare sit in her favored front-row seat in county commissioners' meetings—her confrontational approach is often perceived as too aggressive and sometimes unproductive.
Her forcefulness was born of the civil rights movement, "when you had to fight for everything you got," said Fred Foster, president of the Durham branch of the NAACP. At the time, one of the few black women rising in mainstream politics in North Carolina, Allison spent years to create allies in political circles dominated by whites and by men.
"Perhaps the tactics that were most effective 30, 40 years ago give way to new approaches that are more effective today in terms of building consensus," McKissick said.
Although the committee keeps information about its internal workings private, many longtime participants lament the committee's diminishing membership and spurts of infighting, attributing much of the problem to Allison's inflexibility. For years, political observers, both inside the organization and out, have speculated about the its apparent demise.
Two years ago, when the committee last elected a chairperson, a group that included Mayor Bill Bell and Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden pushed for the Rev. Melvin Whitley to replace Allison.
The election, Cole-McFadden said at the time, would "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."
Cole-McFadden had recently been snubbed by the organization, which endorsed newcomer Donald Hughes over her in the 2009 election. Bell had also nearly lost the committee's endorsement for his mayoral bid to another novice, Steven Williams.
Both Cole-McFadden and Bell won new terms. But the endorsements were part of a troubling pattern, Whitley said. Relatively few members attend enough meetings to be eligible to vote in the endorsements process, he said, and the choices don't represent what black voters in Durham have shown that they want.
"These last several years [Allison] has not been able to galvanize the consensus of the community," said Whitley, who has managed re-election campaigns for both Bell and Cole-McFadden. "[The committee doesn't] allow community leaders to vote, but then they expect community leaders to follow their endorsement," Whitley said. "And it's not working."
Although Whitley had numerous supporters in his December 2009 bid for chairman, most of the more than 200 people at the meeting, including McKissick, couldn't vote because they hadn't attended enough meetings per quarter. The decision to re-elect Allison was made by about two dozen people deemed eligible to vote.
Earlier this year, complaints against Allison continued, this time by two active members. Darius Little and Victoria Peterson, who have both led unsuccessful campaigns for public office, raised questions about the committee's finances, specifically the funds of its political action committee.
Little said Allison and others have addressed his questions, and he's satisfied with the answers. But Peterson, who received the committee's endorsement in last month's City Council race, went as far as to ask the N.C. State Board of Elections to investigate specific transactions included in the political committee's finance reports.
Attorney James D. "Butch" Williams told the Indy he represented Allison in the queries and showed receipts to Peterson's attorney to prove Allison had spent $8,800 on postage for a mass mailing, and that's why she had reimbursed herself from the committee's PAC account. It's unclear whether the state board completed an investigation. Neither Peterson nor state Campaign Finance Director Kim Strach returned phone calls for clarification. In the past few years, the political committee has demonstrated lax bookkeeping, squandering at least $800 last year on bank fees for insufficient funds and penalties for late reports to the State Board of Elections. The board also threatened to revoke the PAC's ability to raise funds.
Committee members recently have demanded more fiscal transparency—an issue likely to be a priority for the new chairperson. Among those considering running are Larry Hester, who has served as an officer in the organization for several years, and the Rev. Philip Cousin Jr., a former school board member and county commissioner. Bell and Whitley say they'll back Cousin for the position. Whitley said he's also been asked by attorney Craigie Sanders to support him for a vice chairman position. Sanders wouldn't comment, nor would Watts, whose name is also being circulated for a potential leadership role.
Despite the difficulties the committee has faced in recent years under Allison's tenure, members say they'll remember her tenacity and strength.
"I don't know many people who can come and sit in a room with the people who are out for your blood, and do it with a smile on your face," said Jackie Wagstaff, a former school board member, describing the tense 2009 face-off between Allison and Whitley.
"The amount of time and effort she's spent worrying about other people's problems, it's been unmatched in my experience," Watts said. "I don't know anyone else who has done this as long, and as hard, as she has in this setting."
To walk away from her life's work when there's still so much to be done will surely be hard for Allison, Foster said. "This has excited folks, and others are sad. It's going to be a different day in Shangri-La or Oz, depending on which fairy tale you believe in."