At a Durham school board work session on a recent weeknight, it's politics as usual for Lavonia Allison. The well-known leader of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People strides confidently to a table at the front of the room, a sheaf of notes in her hand, her trademark black leather cap on her head. She hunches over the microphone and delivers a peppery soliloquy about how the school board has let black children down.
"We've been in the struggle for utopia. We're getting there inch by inch by inch," Allison says of the racially charged merger of the city and county school systems 10 years ago. "Maybe we can move to it a little faster, to where whiteness is not an advantage."
Allison then uses her remaining time to scold board members for sending her a letter accusing her of telling public affairs staffers, as they watched the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on television, "You are lucky. If you don't learn to listen, this is the kind of thing that will continue to happen." The letter from the board's attorney also took Allison to task for disrupting students and staff at several schools in mid-September, reprimanded her for exceeding "all bounds of civility and decency" and restricted her access to school buildings.
But Allison is undaunted. "You all don't have to have a closed session about me," she tells board members. "Fear and intimidation doesn't bother me."
As chair of the Durham Committee for four years, and as a longtime community leader before that, Allison has used her famous confrontational style to further the grassroots agenda of the powerful civil rights group to which she has devoted her adult life.
In recent years, she's focused her attention on the majority-white school board, calling for more resources for black children and leading the committee's efforts to defeat a $52 million school bond at the polls Nov. 6 because members said it didn't do enough for black students. Though the bond succeeded despite the committee's campaign, the efforts of Allison and other leaders did result in election of six of the committee's seven endorsed candidates—including Mayor-elect Bill Bell.
Her supporters say Allison's in-your-face leadership has kept the public spotlight on racial injustice. "She believes in what she's doing. She's a tenacious advocate for historically disadvantaged and disenfranchised people," says Peter Grear, who worked with Allison to found the North Carolina Black Leadership Caucus, which she chaired from 1980-1984.
Allison is credited for successes such as raising black voter participation and the number of black elected officials, and bringing federal attention to racial inequities in Durham schools. Her refusal to play by the rules has made her controversial, but has also won her praise from many who share her commitment to improving the lives of Durham's black citizens.
But an investigation by The Independent into Allison's private business practices shows her fire-and-brimstone approach also scorches ordinary people—many of them the same low-income African Americans her public agenda aims to protect.
Documents on file in the Durham courts and at the North Carolina Real Estate Commission reveal a pattern of harsh treatment of tenants in houses managed by Allison's company, Dunbar Realty and Insurance Co., that continued through last year.
While Durham Housing and Community Development staffers were unable to report the total number of housing code complaints against Dunbar's properties, commission and court records document several tenants' complaints that Allison attempted to evict them after they notified the city of unsafe conditions. In one case, Allison tried to evict two tenants who were law students at North Carolina Central University, then lobbied to have them thrown out of school for standing up to her.
Since a complaint filed by a potential home buyer against Dunbar in 1991 first raised questions about the company's practices, Real Estate Commission investigators have also documented serious accounting problems that have led to commission audits of the business and sanctions against Allison.
And, in a case unrelated to Allison's real- estate business, the mother of an 8-year-old girl struck by Allison's truck in a 1994 accident says Allison intimidated her into keeping quiet and tried to discourage her from filing a lawsuit in civil court.
Allison declined numerous phone, fax and in-person requests to be interviewed for this story.
As the head of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, Durham's most powerful political organization, Allison has considerable clout. Her position, combined with her combative approach, keeps many black leaders from criticizing her in public.
The Rev. Carl Kenney, pastor of Orange Grove Missionary Baptist Church, is one of the few who has spoken out, citing her reputation as a slumlord in one of his newspaper columns.
For Kenney, there's a clear disconnect between Allison's private business practices and the causes she publicly champions.
"Durham needs to consider not only the things its leaders say but also the things they do," he says. "It's a major contradiction when a person advocates for civil rights for impoverished persons and then is a part of the institutions that maintain their oppression."
Public records show a decade-long trail of tenant complaints and financial investigations of Allison's company by the North Carolina Real Estate Commission that continued until May of this year. The commission, relying on city reports and its own staff's research, documented nearly a dozen instances of unsafe living conditions and housing code violations at rental properties that Dunbar managed, as well as questionable business practices.
Nick Bagshawe represented Dunbar tenants during his four-year stint as the housing attorney at the North Central Legal Assistance Program. He says Allison wasn't the worst landlord he ever encountered—he rated her a 3 on a negative scale of 1-5—but her public position made her a formidable opponent.
"Everyone at the city, at the sheriff's department, in the judiciary are afraid of Lavonia," Bagshawe says. "If she campaigns against you, she can have your job."
Bagshawe says Allison evicted tenants in retaliation for having filed complaints about substandard living conditions. "If you complain to the city, that's it; she will put you out," he says.
Real Estate Commission and court records back him up.
One memorable case in 1996 involved an elderly disabled tenant, William Crump, who was living in a basement apartment at 2407 Lane St., south of the NCCU campus. Crump had rented directly from the building's owner, an Ohio man, since the late 1950s until he signed a lease with Dunbar in 1990. Crump was paying $165 a month for the apartment he had occupied for 40 years, according to small-claims court files.
In late 1995, Allison asked him to move out and stopped accepting his rent checks, even though his lease was still in effect. On Jan. 18, 1996, Crump called city housing inspectors because he smelled fumes and feared workers in an upstairs apartment had left the gas on. Inspectors responding to his call reported code violations at his apartment, including holes in the ceiling and walls, crumbling exterior doors and no smoke detectors.
On Feb. 28, according to civil court records, Allison sent a plumber to cut off the water at his house. Crump sent him away.
On April 2, Allison filed suit to evict Crump, insisting that the apartment had to be empty when repairs were made. "This inspection was at your client's request so I am sure he cannot now be heard to complain that he is inconvenienced due to the results," Allison's attorney, Larry Hall, wrote to Bagshawe.
Bagshawe won a judgment that allowed his client to stay in his apartment.
Another case involved Dunbar tenant Harold Cogdell Jr., who, in 1995, was renting half of a small white duplex at 1505 South Alston Ave., adjacent to the NCCU campus where he was studying law. In November of that year, responding to complaints from a classmate of Cogdell's who lived in the other half of the duplex, city housing inspectors found 36 violations in the building: 17 in one apartment and 19 in the other.
Among the problems cited in city inspection reports on file at the Real Estate Commission were missing smoke detectors, loose flooring, missing and inoperable locks on outside doors, standing water around the foundation and unsafe wiring, switches and fixtures.
On Nov. 22, 1995, city housing authorities gave Dunbar and its client, building owner Willie Crews, 15 days to fix the problems and bring the house up to code. On Dec. 1, Allison wrote to Cogdell terminating his lease and ordering him out by the end of the month. Cogdell refused and wrote Allison a letter, offering to negotiate an agreement with Dunbar to remain in his apartment while repairs were made.
On Jan. 22, 1996, Allison, then a member of the NCCU Board of Trustees, visited law school Dean Percy Luney to complain about the two student tenants, suggesting they were practicing law without a license.
"She came into my office trying to get me to intervene and tell Mr. Cogdell and his roommate to stop their actions," recalls Luney, who is now the dean of Florida A&M's new law school. "She said it must be a violation of some sort because law students couldn't represent themselves."
Luney stood up for his students, calling Cogdell an "outstanding young man," and declined Allison's request to intervene.
"I thought it was totally inappropriate," says Luney, who also recalls butting heads with Allison over NCCU's law clinic, where students help low-income Durham residents with their legal problems—including landlord-tenant disputes.
"We had to withdraw from certain cases because we were suing a company whose owner was a member of the school's board of trustees," Luney says, referring to Allison.
The UNC Board of Governors subsequently ordered a hearing on Allison's behavior, Luney says. At the hearing, held by a subcommittee of NCCU trustees, state Rep. Mickey Michaux, a longtime member and leader of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, represented Allison and she retained her seat on the board, serving until her term ended this summer.
Allison's next step in the Cogdell case still draws expressions of indignation from those who were involved. While state law requires that paperwork for "summary ejectment" merely be posted on the door of the property in question, she had the papers personally delivered to the law school by uniformed county officers.
"She had five or six deputy sheriffs serve them in class. That was outrageous!" says Leroy Whitmore, the city housing inspector who testified on the students' behalf during the eviction hearing.
Bagshawe says the professor opened the classroom door to find law enforcement officers standing there. They ordered the two students to come out or they would come in and get them. "If you're politically connected, you can sue your opposition and have them served in an embarrassing way," Bagshawe says.
In the end, Cogdell won his case. Now an attorney who was elected to the Charlotte City Council earlier this month, Cogdell declines to comment on the incident. "It's something that's in the past and I want to let it go," he says.
In addition to playing hardball with her tenants, Allison has been aggressive with those who've stood up for them.
Whitmore told Real Estate Commission investigators that he often testified on behalf of Dunbar's tenants, partly because no one else in his department wanted to handle cases that involved the company. After a hearing in 1996, Allison approached him and "told me I was on her hit list," said Whitmore, who no longer works for the city. "She's the kind of person who demands that everything go her way."
Whitmore also told investigators that his predecessor in the city housing inspections department was "relieved of his duties" because he "was scared of Lavonia Allison and did not stand up to her," according to commission records.
The two institutions that have shaped her life—Dunbar Realty and the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People—were born in 1935, five years after Allison. She grew up in the black Durham neighborhood of Hayti, amid middle-class professionals who included the early leaders of what was then known as the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs, as well as the founders and leaders of such key institutions as North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co. and NCCU.
Dunbar, founded by Allison's father, C.J. Ingram, is still heralded in city tourism literature as a keystone of Durham's historic "Black Wall Street" district. The company provided homes for roughly 300 families, a clientele made up of low- to moderate-income African Americans in neighborhoods adjacent to the NCCU campus.
For a 10 percent commission, the company managed rental homes for hundreds of individual property owners—including some prominent black Durhamites. According to county land records, Dunbar's principals also amassed several dozen properties in the company's name over the years, and under the individual names of Allison; her mother, Bernice Ingram (who has since died but is still listed as the owner of 17 properties); and her husband, F.V. "Pete" Allison. The company also bought and sold buildings and vacant lots, and participated in low-interest loan programs offered by the city for rehabilitating deteriorated houses.
C.J. Ingram died when Allison was small. Her mother took over the company, eventually converting the family's former home at 1213 Fayetteville St. into Dunbar's offices. In 1959, when Allison was teaching public school while working part time at Dunbar, she applied for and received a real estate license.
Allison, who holds a bachelor's degree from Hampton University, a master's degree in health education and a doctorate in education from New York University, continued her career as an educator, teaching at NCCU and running a program for minority health educators at UNC-Chapel Hill. After retiring in 1989, she took over the operation of Dunbar full-time. She officially replaced her mother as CEO in 1993, though commission records indicate she was effectively running the company before that. For example, Allison told commission investigators in 1991 that she was in charge of the company and that her mother was not to be notified of an audit under way at the time.
Over five decades, Bernice Ingram and her daughter tracked their tenants, their clients and their money using old-fashioned hand-written ledgers, according to Real Estate Commission records. In 1991, a man trying to buy a house through Dunbar complained that the company had failed to refund a deposit he'd made after the sale fell through. That case triggered a decade-long investigation that eventually expanded to nearly a dozen case files. Findings from the commission's investigations and audits determined that Dunbar had:
never obtained a corporate real-estate license, though it had been doing business since 1935;
illegally charged tenants a $7.50 "legal fee" whenever Dunbar filed suit to evict them through small-claims court. (Civil court records dating back to 1988 show hundreds of motions for eviction filed by Dunbar, but it's unclear how many of the tenants were charged the fee. However, Allison told Real Estate Commission investigators that she assessed the fee whenever she had to file eviction proceedings in court.);
engaged in "several areas of significant non-compliance with license law and commission rules" including depositing rent payments into an account not designated as a trust or escrow account, combining money belonging to the company and its owners—Allison and her family—with funds belonging to clients and tenants and other bookkeeping improprieties.
Based on these findings, the commission reprimanded Allison in 1992 and suspended the company's corporate real-estate license for three years. The suspension was stayed on condition that irregular bookkeeping practices be corrected. As part of the deal, Allison's aging mother also surrendered her personal real-estate license.
That same year, the secretary of state's office reinstated Dunbar's corporate charter, having pulled it three years earlier for "revenue suspension," which occurs when a company either does not pay taxes or fails to file a return.
After the Real Estate Commission's ruling, auditors worked with Allison and her staff to institute a computerized accounting system, reconcile old ledgers and generally bring the company up to the modern accounting standards required by law.
But four years later, the commission found that Allison still had not corrected the bookkeeping problems and issued further sanctions. Under an order issued Nov. 7, 1996, the commission suspended Allison's license for six months, pending completion of several real- estate courses, and also put her on probation for three years and ordered her not to act as a leasing agent or "exercise any control over any real estate brokerage business" of Dunbar between June 1, 1997 and June 1, 2000.
In those years, the commission investigated three new tenant complaints about security deposit returns and housing code violations. Because the complaints named Allison, they triggered commission inquiries into whether she was managing Dunbar's properties in violation of the commission's order, or whether the company was operating without a designated broker-in-charge, in violation of state real-estate laws.
Transcripts of interviews commission staff conducted with Allison show her stalling on unresolved issues by not returning phone calls and missing deadlines for paperwork requests. Finally, Blackwell Brogden, chief deputy legal counsel for the Real Estate Commission, called for resolution of the three cases in a staff memo written on Dec. 5, 1997.
While Brogden is quick to say that Allison "always cooperated well with us, even when she disagreed with us," his memo hints at difficulties the staff had in getting her to comply with information requests.
"Because the licensees involved have tended to make the process unpleasant is no reason to treat them any differently from other licensees similarly situated," Brogden wrote.
As the commission sought interviews with Dunbar's principals to wrap up its investigation, Allison told officials she was quitting the real-estate business. On April 5, 2000, Allison told a commission investigator that she had "turned the company over" to Joseph Williams and Booker Tate, and the two had renamed the company AT&G Associates. The new company set up shop in Allison's childhood home, where the weather-beaten Dunbar sign still stands today. A receptionist answers Dunbar's phone number with the greeting "AT&G." Williams says that Tate bought all of Dunbar's brokerage business.
The change in ownership led the Real Estate Commission to close the books on its long investigation into Allison's company without pursuing sanctions in the three remaining cases.
"Dunbar got out of the rental management business, and that was probably the best outcome," Brogden says. In a May 19, 2001 letter to Allison, he wrote: "We understand that your firm is no longer active in rental management and that the points under discussion here may therefore be moot."
However, Allison holds a current real-estate license, and Dunbar still exists as a corporation. According to a May 2001 annual report Allison filed with the secretary of state's office, she can still be reached at the company's phone number. And because the Real Estate Commission only regulates and licenses brokers managing properties owned by other people, Allison can legally manage properties belonging to herself, her family and Dunbar without commission oversight or permission—and recent court cases show that she is.
For example, records show Allison filed suit July 25, 2001, to evict a tenant from 2407 Lane St.—the same house where William Crump smelled gas five years earlier.
The house, which is now owned by Allison's husband, was the subject of another housing code complaint, just three weeks ago.
Dunbar's low-income tenants and their advocates aren't the only people who've found it hard to stand up to Lavonia Allison.
Late in the afternoon of Aug. 8, 1994, 8-year-old Almetta Kenion was crossing Fayetteville Street to get to her aunt's house on the fringes of the NCCU campus. Her mother, Valerie, had sent her daughter there to retrieve some house keys.
At the same time, Allison was heading home from Dunbar's office just up the street. Across from Almetta's aunt's house, Allison's pickup truck struck the little girl. According to civil court records, the incident ended with Almetta in an ambulance and Allison telling a police officer that it wasn't her fault.
A day or two later, while Almetta was in the hospital with broken ribs, 10 missing teeth and severe facial injuries, Kenion says Allison dropped by her house, leaving an apology and an offering: a bucket of ice cream and a bag of fruit. Kenion, who knew of Allison's political work and had briefly been her tenant, recalls thinking it was a calculated move to smooth things over and avoid litigation and publicity.
The next message from Allison arrived second hand but the gist was clear.
"She called my pastor to try to get him to talk to me about not even having a lawsuit," says Kenion, a nurse at Lincoln Community Health Center.
Facing years of medical and dental bills for her daughter, Kenion started looking for a lawyer. The first one she called wouldn't take the case, she says, because he wouldn't go up against Allison.
And as it happened, Kenion says, Allison was a tough adversary. "She fought tooth and nail not to pay anything," says Kenion, who still seethes when she sees Allison around her neighborhood and in the news, which is often.
Kenion filed suit against Allison in Durham County Superior Court on May 6, 1997, asking for monetary damages and a jury trial. A judge sent the case to court-ordered mediation, where Kenion says Allison refused to sit in the same room with her and her attorney.
The legal negotiations wore on into December of that year, when members of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People elected Allison their new chairwoman over two challengers in a landslide vote. A swearing-in ceremony held at St. Joseph's AME Church drew 600 people.
When Allison took over as committee chair on Jan. 11, 1998, Kenion's case still had not been settled. "She never wanted it publicized, never wanted anybody to know about it because of her status," says Kenion.
The settlement agreement between Allison and Kenion, reached on Nov. 4, 1998, is sealed. The judge's orders include an admonition to both parties not to reveal the terms. But Kenion, who still lives in the same neighborhood with Almetta, now 15, says her daughter is still missing six front teeth because a dental plate wasn't covered in the settlement. Medicaid won't pay for it, and she can't afford it.
Kenion says she takes comfort in her faith. "It's not her world," she says of Allison. "It's not my world. It's God's world."
Still, she regrets her decision to keep quiet about her suit against Allison.
"I wish I'd have made it public, because of the kind of person she is," Kenion says.
Allison's larger-than-life persona makes it hard for black leaders to speak frankly about her dealings in the African-American community.
Supporters and detractors alike hesitate or outright refuse to publicly evaluate her leadership. They cite an unwritten rule that the black community doesn't discuss its internal affairs—and especially not those of the leader of the Durham Committee.
But privately, some black leaders say that Allison's desire to protect her real-estate career has shuttered the committee's advocacy work on housing during her four years at the helm.
Under her predecessor, attorney Kenneth Spaulding, a housing subcommittee drafted a proposal asking the city to strengthen enforcement of the housing code to improve living conditions for low-income renters. After Allison took office and appointed her own housing committee chair, that proposal disappeared, says the Rev. Carl Kenney—one of the few who will speak publicly about her. He called Allison on it in a newspaper column, suggesting she was "in no position to lead" on housing issues because of her personal business reputation. After he wrote the column, Kenney says Allison showed up on his doorstep with her pastor to give him a dressing down.
Others point to the deafening silence from committee leaders on the recent controversy about the future of the Few Gardens public housing complex in North East Central Durham. Using federal grant money, the Durham Housing Authority plans to raze the complex and replace it with mixed-income housing as part of a U.S. Housing and Urban Development project. Discussions about delays in relocating 240 families—which escalated into such a shouting match at a meeting earlier this month that Durham Housing Authority leaders shut down the gathering—have continued without public input from the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, some members say privately.
From 1993 to 1997, housing was on the front-burner under Spaulding, says Tara Nichols, who headed the Durham Committee's housing group during two of those years. In addition to the call for stronger code enforcement, her committee successfully lobbied the city to form an ad-hoc group to study problems in public housing. "We had a very hands-on approach, and our thing was to be out in the community with the folks who were being affected," Nichols says. Current housing chair Lori Jones-Gibbs declined comment on the group's activities.
Allison's second two-year term as the chairwoman of the Durham Committee ends next month, when she comes up for re-election.
Ike Robinson ran against Allison for the chairmanship in 1997, but says he won't challenge her again. "It's hard to beat Dr. Allison as long as Dr. Allison wants to be in that position," says the former Durham City Council member. "Dr. Allison has been part of the Durham Committee for a long time. She has been here through the tough times. People give her credit for that and consider her the matriarch of civil rights and of the Durham Committee."
At the same time, he says, some members of the Bull City's black community see a need for a change.
"There is discussion in the African-American community about the need for more inclusive leadership, for more focus on developing coalitions, negotiating and dealing together, as well as confrontation when necessary."
Mayor-elect Bill Bell, a 26-year county commissioner who endorsed this month's school bond despite Allison's objections—and garnered her strong support anyway—sums up Allison's leadership style this way: "When she puts her mind to something, she really goes after it. The downside is that sometimes the message doesn't get through because of the messenger."
For her part, Allison resists the idea that her individual leadership—and its controversies—can be separated from the public agenda of her political group.
"People keep trying to shoot down the message by talking about me," she said during one of the several times she declined a request for an interview for this story. "As long as I've known what I'm standing for, I'm going to stand."