At White Rock Baptist Church on Dec. 13, William Marsh, the parliamentarian of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, read the slate of names put forth by the nominating committee, topped with Lavonia Allison for chair. He then called for additional nominations from the group of about 300 African Americans assembled in the meeting hall.
After a few seconds of shuffling feet and craning necks, Marsh called for a vote. Moments later, Allison sailed into her third two-year term as chair, not only unopposed but without comment.
Grinning in the hallway afterward, Allison raged about the civil rights challenges of the new millennium and bragged of her unanimous support as the head of the all-black organization.
Outside, beyond the earshot of the leader they declined to challenge, some members told a different story.
"This is nothing but a big joke," declared Jackie Wagstaff, a former Durham City Council member and affordable housing advocate. "Why did we even come here tonight?"
Many Allison supporters--ranging from older committee activists who fought the fights of the 1960s with her, to the teenaged members of the Mt. Zion Christian Academy basketball team summoned by their coach--had come to back Allison. But others had come hoping for and expecting a showdown between Allison and another candidate. Up until the moment of the vote, several other names were floated, including those of the Rev. Carl Kenney, one of the few black leaders in Durham who openly criticizes Allison, and former city council member and state senator Ralph Hunt. Several members had also urged Allison's predecessor, attorney Kenneth Spaulding, to seek another term.
But when the moment arrived, no one had enough desire, enough support and enough gumption to challenge Allison's grip on the group.
Larry Holt, the group's second vice president, said after the meeting that the silence surprised him. "I was kind of looking forward to the usual intense debates," said Holt. "I wasn't really expecting them to accept the slate."
The committee, a powerhouse in Bull City politics, was founded in 1935 to give African-American Durhamites a voice in local elections through its political action committee and to advocate for their views on issues like housing, economics and education. The group elects a chair every two years, while choosing subcommittee chairs and junior officers annually each December. The slate, proposed by a nominating committee appointed by Allison, included Holt, who was re-elected, first vice president Finesse Couch, third vice president Preston Barnes and several new subcommittee chairs.
Allison's four-year tenure and her tactics have drawn criticism from younger, more progressive black leaders in Durham who say both the committee and its 71-year-old leader have failed to keep up with the city's changing political scene. Allison is a lifelong member of the group, having served long terms as the political chair and the education chair before beating two challengers for the top post in 1997 and again in 1999. Critics say her crusade against the white school superintendent and majority-white school board--punctuated this year with a physical altercation and a legal reprimand of her behavior--are an embarrassment to blacks who want less confrontation and more compromise on a broader range of issues.
And, although she's known statewide for her civil rights work, Allison's career as a landlord is fraught with documented mistreatment of tenants--the same poor black residents she purports to advocate for as an activist. Civil court records and N.C. Real Estate Commission documents show allegations of retaliatory evictions, a history of houses and apartments with unsafe living conditions, and financial mismanagement at her family real-estate business, Dunbar Realty and Insurance Co.
News of Allison's business practices, detailed in an investigation by The Independent, published Nov. 21, outraged some political activists. They say her personal career directly conflicts with fair housing principles and that she has used her position to shut down the committee's work on the housing front.
While no one stepped forward in time to challenge her this month, some members on both ends of the political spectrum say they are still looking for change.
"I think the committee needs new leadership," group member and conservative activist Victoria Peterson said after the vote. "We need to get a new generation ready. I'm hoping this will be Dr. Allison's last term."
Kenney, who has denounced Allison publicly in his column in The Herald-Sun and as the pastor of a progressive, young congregation at Orange Grove Missionary Baptist Church in East Durham, chose not to run because of the time those two jobs take. Hunt considered it but says he was not prepared to campaign in time. Spaulding, who chose not to seek a third term in 1997, was not interested in returning to his old post.
Committee members' acceptance of Allison's continued leadership shows the 66-year-old organization is stagnating, says Kenney, the committee's former religion chair who left the group in the mid-'90s.
"I think we've got to take a very serious look at what the committee means to the city," he says. "It can be an organization that gets out the vote at election time but as a group that can address the needs of Durham's black community, the committee's not succeeding. It's a dying organization that has not been able to motivate energetic young leaders."
Hunt, who was widely expected to step forward on Dec. 13, is a peer of Allison's and a member of what some call the "old guard" of the committee, though he has been inactive in recent years. Still, Kenney says many people like himself would have supported Hunt over Allison.
But Hunt, a retiree with three decades of experience in Durham politics, wasn't willing.
"If I was going to run, I'd want some time to think about it and get the word out to the whole community," Hunt said four days before the election, while predicting that Allison would be re-elected. "I would not want to run for this office for the sake of trying to get Lavonia out of office. I don't know of a single individual as willing to devote the time, energy and effort to the Durham Committee as Lavonia Allison."
At the same time, Hunt agreed with Allison's critics that her "aggressive and forceful" nature is a problem for the black community she represents.
"I would certainly vote to have Lavonia change her approach in some ways," he said. "Lavonia articulates the concerns of a lot of people, but the manner in which she does it may not be the best."
But some committee members say neither the group nor its current leader represent their views or provide leadership on core grassroots issues for blacks such as employment, health, economics--and particularly housing.
Outside the church after the vote, Wagstaff said the committee represents only one slice of a wide array of black views in the Bull City.
"All I see in there are bourgeoisie," Wagstaff said, pointing out that white Durham residents have choices among several organizations in the city, ranging from the conservative Friends of Durham to the progressive People's Alliance. "Where are the people who are like me? I am an advocate for low-income folks and against slumlords. So I don't fit in with this group."
The committee needs to reach out to younger blacks, says Daniella Cook, a 25-year-old committee member who works for the Common Sense Foundation. Cook, who is involved in the Durham Committee's education group, says the leadership favors older, lifelong Durham residents, sometimes to the exclusion of the younger Durhamites who have chosen to live here and want to contribute.
Allison's re-election may be a catalyst for change, Cook says.
"I think in the next two years, a lot of young people are going to mobilize," she says.
On the other end of the political spectrum, conservative activist and longtime committee member Victoria Peterson agrees the Durham Committee excludes a variety of views. The night of the election, Peterson also criticized committee leaders for guarding the group's privacy so closely that it causes suspicion.
Peterson says she has sought copies of her group's constitution and bylaws for several years, while being rebuffed by its leaders. Finally, disgusted with the secrecy, she staged a public ruckus at the pre-election endorsement meeting this fall. She got the copies last week.
"Very few people know how this organization is run," Peterson said, shaking the papers and echoing Wagstaff's allegations that the elections process is flawed. "They say 'we don't want anyone to know.' I say 'Well, you complain that the white community is trying to control us, but you won't even show your members the bylaws.'"
That same night, Peterson challenged the committee's no-press and no-whites rules, arguing that a more open process would earn the committee more respect from outsiders. Political committee chair Deborah Giles, charged with enforcing the old traditions, overruled her.
"If we're truly about the African-American community, what do we have to hide?" Peterson said.
After The Independent's Nov. 21 article about Lavonia Allison, readers responded wanting to help Almetta Davis, the young girl struck by Allison's truck in a 1994 accident. Almetta, now 16, is still missing seven top teeth. The remaining dental work was not covered in the civil suit settlement, and her family cannot afford it. Durham County Register of Deeds Willie Covington is coordinating the community effort. If you would like to help, contact Covington at (919) 384-7874 or firstname.lastname@example.org.