Burden of Dreams: The Trials of Omaha’s Black Museum
For more than a decade now I have been writing about the travails of the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in an abridged version in 2006. You will find two other major stories I’ve mine about the museum on this blog. One is from 1996 and it profiles the museum’s founder, Bertha Calloway. I called the piece, Bertha’s Battle. The other piece appeared in early 2010 and documented some of the past problems the organization has endured and broke news about some new, promising developments concerning the organization. I will soon be writing new stories about the museum based on even more recent developments and so look for new posts related to this subject in the coming weeks.
Burden of Dreams: The Trials of Omaha’s Black Museum
©by Leo Adam Biga
This is the story about the rise and fall of a once proud institution.
It began in 1975 with great promise. The Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha set itself apart as an African-American cultural institution devoted to revealing the rich past of black settlers and soldiers and sojourners in the Midwest. Through displays and lectures it taught a history long withheld from blacks and whites alike. One largely suppressed or omitted or ignored in schools. By making black history a cause for affirmation and revision, the museum staged its own semi-militant Black Power movement. With its insistent black heritage focus, the museum gave anyone who passed through its doors or saw its touring exhibitions and presentations, a history lesson unlike any other. It was a revelation.
There was always the hope the museum could serve as an anchor and destination stop in the historic North 24th Street district.
But over time the museum’s devolved into a troubled place beset by all manner of problems. Many revolve around embattled interim director Jim Calloway, whose strident ways make him persona non grata with potential funders. Ultimately, though, the museum’s suffered from the lack of a consistent revenue stream, a well-connected, well-heeled board and inadequate record keeping.
A solution to some problems may be in the works via a proposed new partnership between the museum and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Grand visions for the museum have surfaced before only never to be realized. It’s a familiar story to Calloway’s ailing mother, Omaha civil rights activist and black history buff Bertha Calloway, who forged the museum from her own imagination and and determination. She’s seen and heard it all. Plans. Promises. Proposals. Proclamations. Architectural renderings for a refurbished museum never got past the conceptual stage. What should have been a shining moment — a book co-authored by her and historian Alonzo Smith about Nebraska’s black history, featuring images and data drawn from the museum’s collection — turned debacle. There was a dispute with the publisher and with a pair of corporate sponsors. The museum did not accept the publication, which is full of errors. Most of the books went unsold and sit in the office of an Omaha attorney. Questions linger over how the museum spent the corporate dollars dedicated to the project.
She harbored a dream for an an archives and interpretive center on the city’s north side that chronicled the seldom told story of black pioneers. With help from her late husband James T. Calloway and fellow members of the Negro Historical Society she founded, the GPBHM was born in 1975 as an incorporated non-profit. The museum opened in 1976 at its present site, the three-story Webster Telephone Exchange building, at 2213 Lake Street. The once slated-for-condemnation structure was saved from the rubble heap when the couple purchased it for a song. The 1906 brick structure designed by famed architect Thomas Kimball was home to the Nebraska Telephone Company and, later, an Urban League community center, before being converted into apartments. After some revamping, it became, under Bertha Calloway’s watch, a storehouse and source of black pride.
The Calloways got it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Behind the building’s impressive facade, however, lies a dilapidated structure, its distressed condition a mirror of the turmoil that’s characterized the museum’s governance the past decade. Poor health long ago forced Bertha Calloway to give up the reins to her son. She now resides in a north Omaha nursing home, her mind in and out of the mental fog that 1993 brain surgery left her in. Chronic seizures grip her.
For a long time now the museum itself has existed in limbo, not formally dissolved but floundering, its business conducted in shadows, its affairs in disarray, its displays rarely seen and its board comprised of a few old family friends, but no one with real money or influence. Over the past decade the GPBHM’s been closed more than it’s been open. From about 1998 to 2005, access to the museum and its collection was “by appointment only.” In 2003 the holdings — artifacts, photos, books and documents — were mostly emptied out of the century-old building and put in storage to protect them from water damage and other environmental hazards.
Occasional selections from the collection could be viewed in temporary/touring displays at off-site locations. For a long time, the Blue Lion Center at 24th and Lake reserved space for museum exhibits. When Nebraska Workforce Development located its headquarters there a few years ago, the museum was left homeless. For the past two years the collection’s largely been invisible, even to students and scholars. Since June, when the GPBHM hosted its last exhibit in the Webster building, the museum’s doors have been shut to all visitors, the gas and water turned off and the phone disconnected. This in lieu of badly needed repairs and the result of a then-pending lawsuit over who should retain possession of the building.
From GPBHM collection
For a time last summer a banner hung outside the front entrance read, Temporarily Closed for Renovation, although anyone with knowledge of the situation, then and now, understands the museum’s broke and no renovations are on the horizon.
To keep the museum viable and to care for his mother, Jim Calloway’s sacrificed his career as a business manager and exhausted his savings. He’s a nomad these days, working odd jobs to supplement his social security, staying in rental units, traveling by bus or bumming rides, scrounging for favors and loans.
“There were a couple years I paid myself a salary, but for the last couple years I haven’t got anything. On occasion, if we get a donation, I get a small portion of it to help me pay my bills. I’ve been evicted from two places. I just run around with my backpack and spend a lot of time down here,” he said sitting at a reference desk in the W. Dale Clark public library, where he’s a familiar figure. “I’ve basically gone broke trying to make sure everything’s stable. It’s just part of the deal.”
Today, the museum’s regarded as more symbol than reality. Rumors abound about not only the condition of the collection, but its disposition and whereabouts. There’s even talk holdings were sold on E-Bay or at auction. Calloway said nothing’s been sold online but some artifacts were sold at a Dino’s Storage auction held to recoup unpaid storage fees. He said he bought back most of the museum items on sale. The few he didn’t purchase, he added, “weren’t really of any great historical significance. They’re things that can be replaced.” He said the museum’s most prized possessions — photos, plus research documents prepared or compiled by his mother and others — remain untouched. He said there’s little monetary value to the photos and data, but much historical value.
“We have the most information of any museum on early blacks in this part of the country, including the homesteaders,” he said. “Every effort has been made to protect these important historical documents and photos.”
With the museum in crisis mode for so long now, the questions arising about it have undercut people’s faith in Calloway and in the institution. While he acknowledges mistakes, he said much of the doubt is unfounded speculation. “There’s so many misconceptions about what’s going on,” he said. “Maybe because we’re not open on a regular basis, that’s where those perceptions come from.” UNO Black Studies professor Larry Menyweather-Woods, a closer observer of the museum, said the public has “taken this so much without facts they don’t know what to believe.” Former Douglas County Board member Carole Woods-Harris said, “Very few people know what’s going on.”
Calloway tried laying to rest some of those concerns when, in early March, he showed a pair of visitors the holdings at two storage sites. One, situated on a patch of ground directly west of the museum building, is a 48-foot long metal storage trailer jammed with stuff. He owes thousands of dollars for the trailer’s use but he said the owner’s been “patient with me” thus far. Ironically, amid all the talk about the holdings — they’ve sat, albeit unseen and locked away, next to the museum “this whole time” The other site, a warehouse owned by a family supermarket chain, is a vast space leased to the museum for storing shelves, lights, signage, et cetera. The lease officially ended some time ago and the location’s continued use by the museum is on “a month by month basis,” although Calloway’s been told he may need to clear out the holdings by the end of May. He’s looking for a new spot.
Along nearly the entire length of one side of the trailer, stacked from floor to ceiling, are columns of cardboard conservation boxes containing documents on various topics of black culture and history. To illustrate the contents, Calloway removed two boxes, one labeled Black Cowboys and the other, Bob Gibson, each filled with articles, essays and notes on their subjects. The little known role of black cowboys is a major emphasis of the museum. Bertha Calloway’s own grandfather, George “Dotey Pa” Pigford was a cattle hand. The feats of black icons with local ties, like major league baseball hall of famer Bob Gibson, publisher Mildred Brown, black nationalist Malcolm X and civil rights activist John Markoe, are also museum staples.
If a proposed agreement with UNO to provide professional support is finalized, then Calloway said the museum’s holdings can, for the first time, be completely indexed or inventoried. “It’s mainly identifying what’s in these 200-plus boxes. It’s going to take a big effort by a lot of people and it’s going to take a lot of time,” he said.
Despite a recent court decision that found the GPBHM operates as a functional museum, public perception says something else. There’s a widespread assumption it is, in fact, a closed, failed institution with no clear future in sight. Calloway sees it differently. “The case we made before the judge” is that we’re an organization that’s struggling but that’s still trying to keep afloat. No, we’re not open right now, but we’re in the process of making a partnership” to stabilize and reopen it.
Perception can beget reality, however, as when funding approved for the beleaguered museum was pulled by the Omaha City Council and the Douglas County Board, when elected officials expressed concerns about its shaky financial house and its slow response or non-compliance in producing mandatory reports for review. Douglas County Board Chairman Mike Boyle said the museum failed to show how it spent past appropriations from that elected body. “When you’re getting funds from a government agency, you have to account for them. You have to show you spent it for the purposes for which it was given. That’s basic-101 stuff.” Boyle said. “If you don’t account for the funds, we’re certainly not going to give you any additional money, that’s for sure. That was his (Calloway’s) problem.”
Calloway concedes the museum’s record-keeping is inadequate. He said finding documents is complicated by the volume of items he must sift through in storage.
He said officials have tacitly given him the impression his leaving the museum is a condition of funding allocations. Officials contacted for this story deny any such stipulations. Calloway, though, fears he’s burned too many bridges along the way. He hopes his past isn’t held against the museum.
Little else but hope has kept the museum alive. That, and Calloway’s devotion to his mother’s dream, a devotion he’s perhaps carried to a fault by refusing to relinquish control, even during the 10 years when he cared for his mother in her home.
“I’ve always been very dedicated to her and, you know, I made a commitment to her that I’d keep her at home as long as possible,” he said. “But it did put the purpose of the museum behind 10 years. There may have been some times when I dropped the ball on things I should have been doing as far as progressing the museum forward. I probably should have allocated some authority to other individuals. I may have tried to take on too much at one time. But I didn’t know any other way. And I had a certain responsibility as a full-time caregiver. I wish I could have had that time to really dedicate to the museum because I think, to be honest with you, things wouldn’t be as bad off as they are now. But there wasn’t anyone else I had total confidence in that I could just give the key to and say, ‘Here…’
From GPBHM collection
If anything, Omaha photojournalist and longtime family friend Rudy Smith said, Calloway’s carried his devotion too far.
“He is not the bad guy. Jim’s being true to his mother’s wishes and desires. Everything Jim’s done has been to maintain the legacy his mother established. He’s not in it for the money. He’s not in it for glory or fame. The problem’s been with him giving it up. He would do anything and everything to keep it, and he has, from borrowing money from people knowing he couldn’t pay it back to pay bills, to going without eating to working part-time jobs, whatever it took. All because of his love for his mother and her dream. He came into this thing when the museum had no money, no followers, no members, no board of directors and virtually none of the records that Bert kept. Who knows where they are? He inherited a lot of things he had no control over. He’s been in this by himself.”
In recent years, Smith and others agree that Calloway’s miscalculations have left his own and the museum’s reputation tarnished to the point that all public funding for the GPBHM has been denied. Calloway admits making “a big mistake” when he twice turned down city Community Development Block Grant funding, once, in 2001, for $50,000 he rejected as too little to address infrastructure needs and again, in 2002, when he balked at an amended offer of $100,000 as also insufficient.
Calloway accused Omaha City Councilman Frank Brown of having museum funds diverted to the Love’s Jazz and Arts Center, a pet project of Brown’s. Brown denies it. Upon withdrawing the funds, the city offered Calloway this official explanation in a March 24, 2004 letter signed by James Thele, housing and community development manager: “As there will be further delays in the project, the City of Omaha will reallocate the FY 2001 Community Block Grant funds to other projects that have an immediate need.” The letter references “past due real estate taxes and special assessments” and “unpaid debts owed by” the museum and requests “a release allowing the City of Omaha to obtain a credit check” on it. “I encourage you to continue to resolve all financial and other issues.”
An April 13, 2004 letter gave the museum an extra 30 days to satisfy the city’s requests, only by then the city was asking for more extensive documentation. When Calloway didn’t respond, the funds went elsewhere.
“I gambled and lost. I take responsibility because I could have acted on it sooner,” Calloway said. “A hundred thousand dollars is a hundred thousand dollars. If I had it all to do over again I would probably have taken the money and got part of the work done and then lobbied for the rest. But at the time I felt they were throwing us carrots. They’ve got millions of dollars they’re spending on a lot of other projects and here we need at least $230,000 and they’re only throwing out $100,000. Just enough to get us in trouble.”
In a recent interview Thele said, “We had asked for information from the Great Plains Black Museum. They never provided it. That’s the problem. No matter who we work with we have certain documentation required by the federal government as well as by the City Law department in some cases. We have guidelines regarding how long we can keep letting that money sit. We’d certainly be glad to work with them again if they’d like to submit again.” He added the door’s not been closed on the museum. “Oh, no, not at all, it’s a wonderful building. We’d like to see the building preserved. It’s part of the history of north Omaha.”
Calloway feels whatever animosity he’s generated at City Hall stems from his fierce opposition to city-led redevelopment along North 24th Street. At the very time he held out for more money he led the Committee for the Preservation of Historic North Omaha Sites, which criticized, via letters, opinion pieces, fliers and demonstrations, city plans for North 24th Street as disrespectful of black heritage.
“I truly believe city politics are connected to the demise of the museum. Because of my continued opposition…we got the shaft. I pointed fingers. There’s no secret there’s no good blood between Frank Brown and I. Those kinds of issues, I’ve learned in a very hard way, you can’t put out there when asking people for money. My lesson is, in order to really play the game, you’ve got to kiss The Man’s butt every once in awhile. That politics is a nasty game and I’m not suited for it. I’m not a diplomat in that regard at all. I get pretty hard-headed sometimes. I find a lot of times that stubbornness about me gets me in trouble. I just don’t tolerate a bunch of bull. Even my mother continues to be defiant…She frequently tells me not to be ‘a sell-out to the bourgeois martini set.’”
UNO Black Studies professor Larry Menyweather-Woods said Calloway’s “made bad decisions” along the way. He’s said he’s even told Calloway straight up what others have said — “they don’t trust you and they tell me I’m a dang fool to trust you.”
One thing everybody agrees on is that if the museum is to have a future, Calloway must divorce himself from it — even though he’s invested more than a decade in it.
“With all the controversy that surrounds the museum and me, I know it’s in the best interests of the museum for me to step aside as soon as possible,” Calloway said. “My character has been assassinated to the point where, right now, it doesn’t do me any good to even think about continuing to try” and remain. “There’s so many questions swirling around that I’d be a detriment. I know that. It used to bother me quite a bit. It doesn’t bother me anymore because I know I’ve done the right thing by my mother and by other individuals who started this thing, and that’s to protect the holdings at all cost, and that’s what I’ve done. And so, I’m comfortable with it.”
A February 22 Douglas County Court ruling may clear the way for a working relationship between the museum and the UNO Department of Black Studies, which could give the GPBHM a whole new image. Calloway and UNO officials have been conferring for months now. Brokering the deal is Larry Menyweather-Woods, who approached Calloway about the university working with the museum. Terms of a formal agreement are under review. The partnership is contingent on Calloway cutting official ties to the museum, although he would act as a consultant.
UNO would provide professional and student services to help: catalog the collection; identify funding sources and apply for grant monies; and advise on the formation of a new board of advisors and board of directors and on staff hires.
Menyweather-Woods said partnerships between black studies departments and black museums exist across the country. He and UNO College of Arts and Sciences Dean Sheldon Hendricks say such an arrangement only makes sense here given the scholarship the university can apply to the research trove the museum possesses. “Those are natural collaborations,” Hendricks said. In no way, Menyweather-Woods said, will UNO take over the museum. It’s more about guiding it. “It’s about the black studies department being intrinsically involved in helping reestablish the museum as a viable research center,” he said.
Calloway said any new leadership is likely to “fit more easily and comfortably into that atmosphere” of public-private politics and hoop-jumping he loathes so much.
Historian Alonzo Smith, a former consultant with the museum, embraces any help the museum can get. “They have all this material, but they really need a different institution…a different organization…” to maintain it. “A lot of the collection’s never really been cataloged. I remember going through all these photographs that were in boxes and they had no names or labels on them. Things were not done in a professional manner. It’s time to take it out of their (the Calloways’) hands, so somebody else can pick up with it. It would be great if that could happen.”
Rudy Smith said whatever happens, the museum needs “a new direction, new leadership, an infusion of money and a five or ten year plan. It does need to be turned over to an organization or a group that can help revive it, restore its integrity and do something with it. It needs someone with a big vision…a big vision beyond Omaha. It has to have some linkage to the national black museums association. It’s going to take a lot of work, a lot of money.”
Just how much money depends on who you talk to. Building repairs and retrofitting estimates vary from a few hundred thousand dollars to address the most pressing needs to a few million dollars to completely overhaul the building. There’s also been talk of a new structure adjacent or connected to the existing museum.
While a UNO association would give the GPBHM more credibility, many issues remain, the most basic being a need for sizable resources, and UNO is adamant about not committing money to the project. Besides repairs-renovations, funds must be secured for an operating budget and to cover salaries for a professional staff that curates and preserves the collection and manages the museum.
A lack of dollars has always plagued the institution. The Calloways didn’t have much of their own and they’ve resisted, as Jim Calloway put it, aligning themselves with “the fat cats” who can do the most good, but want the most say.
Whatever happened to the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha is a question on many people’s minds in the black community. This once celebrated institution at 2213 Lake Street carved a niche for itself as a center for illuminating a history otherwise unseen or untold. Opened in 1976, the museum’s archives and displays highlighted the role blacks played in shaping and settling Nebraska and chronicled the many triumphs and tribulations they experienced here.
The museum is often referred to in the past tense these days because of a complex set of circumstances and series of events that have, in effect, locked away all that history from public view for much of the past decade. Even though a recent court ruling denied a title claim that asserted the museum corporation no longer operates as a museum in the building at 2213 Lake, the reality is that the building has been closed since last June. The official reason given for the closure was pending renovations, but unofficially the museum shut everything down, just as it earlier pulled everything out, in the midst of the lawsuit and assorted financial problems, including debts and liens.
The interior of the split-level building, which sits mostly empty, is in disrepair. Both roofs leak and one’s in danger of collapsing. When the museum was still open on a semi-regular or by-appointment-only basis, the back of the structure was closed-off out of liability concerns. Building engineers have decreed much of the building unsafe for public tours. Three years ago, the museum holdings were hurriedly put in storage, where they remain, to protect them from water damage.
It’s not what founder and director emeritus Bertha Calloway had in mind. She devoted herself to the museum and its mission with the same fervor she gave to the civil rights cause. She explained why in a 1996 Reader interview: “People must see black history in order for the images they have of black people to change. That’s what our museum is all about,” she said, “It’s about revealing a history that’s been withheld.” She was driven in part to start the museum so that she could correct the one-sided history taught in schools. “The history I was forced to learn and hated just consisted of white history. I knew there had to some other kind where black people fit in other than slavery. Even when my children were growing up there wasn’t anything in the public schools about African-Americans.” She vowed then “that my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren know that African-Americans were involved in the settlement of this country and the settlement of the West in particular. That’s important because it makes you feel like you belong.”
Malcolm X Birthsite Foundation board member and former Omaha Public Library staffer Vicky Parks said the woman behind the museum did great things for her community.
“Mrs. Calloway gave me and people of my generation a sense of our history and a sense of our culture…Kwanza, Black History Month, Juneteenth, the black cowboys, the black homesteaders, the Tuskegee Airmen…She gave all that to me and more. Notice I say SHE gave all those gifts, not the Omaha Public Schools, not the university. I had a black studies minor in college, but that was just a refresher compared to what she gave me.”
The way Parks sees it, the museum could bridge “the disconnect between the younger and older people right now. When you see the dispersal and the fragmentation of the black community, I think African-American children need a sense of self more than ever, and the museum provided that. In our youth today there’s not the sense of black pride and black nationalism my generation had, and it shows in our voting patterns and in our living patterns and in what things we’re committed to. The community needs the museum more than ever now.”
What began with great fanfare as a cultural landmark in those early years has unraveled over time into a private and public battleground to secure support and fend off critics and creditors. No clear solution or resolution has emerged even though there’s great interest in seeing it return to glory.
“I just think it’s a valuable asset to the community and we need to do what we can to preserve it,” said attorney and former Omaha City Councilman Brenda Council.
From the very start, the GPBHM operated on a too-small budget for the scope of Bertha Calloway’s big dreams. She and others always felt the museum’s been slighted in the funding it receives compared to other area museums.
“She does not get the respect and the support she deserves. I’m truly saddened that we have not as a community chosen to provide the financial resources to institutionalize that museum,” said Parks. “I hope the museum does become an institution…in every sense of the word. Institutions are perpetual. They last from generation to generation. They don’t fold because of one person. Look at the results of the museum not being supported by the total community. I think it’s sad the whole community hasn’t seen the value in continuing her legacy. When black people come from other places they want to see what black people are accomplishing here. They want to see the contributions and the struggles and the sacrifices of our people. What is it that they get to see?”
For years the museum did at least enjoy the support of some major funding bodies, such as the now defunct United Arts Omaha, and received tourist revenue allocations from the city and county. Its 1976 start-up was facilitated by a $101,000 federal Bicentennial Commission grant. About the time the corporate giving climate tightened, leaving the museum without a steady source of monies for operating expenses, much less repairs, she suffered a setback when she underwent brain surgery for what turned out to be a benign tumor. Her memory impaired, she gave more and more responsibility to her son.
That’s when things began to get away from her and the small coterie of confidantes she trusted, most notably her son, who moved from Lincoln back to Omaha to assist his mother. As her faculties diminished, Jim Calloway assumed the museum’s day to day operations. Eventually, she was declared mentally incompetent to handle her own affairs and in 1997 a court-appointed attorney, Karen Tibbs, was installed as her guardian-conservator.
Perpetually short of funds, the museum’s typically put off overdue repairs or gerrymandered fixes in place of serious rehab. A second-story false floor and the L-shaped, split-level building’s two roofs — a flat tar roof in back and a gabled tile roof in front — have deteriorated to such an extent that they must be replaced. Additionally, new windows, tuck-pointing and other weatherproofing/climate-control improvements are needed. There are also plumbing, heating/cooling and electrical upgrades needed.
Then, when the museum was in line for Community Development Block Grant funding to pay for some of the outstanding repair work, Jim Calloway refused a 2001 city allocation of $50,000 as inadequate and even after the allocation was increased to $100,000 in 2003 he stalled, and in a fit of pride, held out for more. When stipulations, in the way of financial accountings, were placed on the museum getting the funds, Calloway did not comply and the money offer was rescinded. When, around the same time, he similarly did not satisfy Douglas County Board requests for financial records, county appropriations were withheld.
From GPBHM collection
Calloway’s exchanged harsh words with public officials, one of whom refers to him as “a negative person.” Those kinds of missteps by Calloway have cost he and the museum dearly. No public funds have been forthcoming since then. He is either unwilling or unable to provide the financial statements in question. There’s talk that some public officials and some private individual have made it known they will not fund/back the museum unless Calloway’s gone or until he satisfies demands for full, accurate accountings.
One financial crisis after another’s dogged the museum. There are some $10,000 in unpaid bills. There are outstanding tax liens. In recent years Calloway’s failed to file for the museum’s tax exempt status, which found him scrambling to scrape up the cash. He raised what was owed before, but he’s well behind on the most recent taxes due — $3,750 and counting in tax and interest.
“My fault. There’s no question about that,” he said, adding the building’s tax certificate is held by an investor who has no designs on the property itself except to collect interest on the taxes owed. Menyweather-Woods has negotiated a payment plan with the investor.
Squabbles, accusations and allegations, both inside and outside the family, have further eroded confidence in the museum. Calloway and his sister Bonita are at odds over who owns the museum holdings. She asserts they’re the property of the family. He maintains they belong to the museum corporation and the community.
Museum advocate Larry Menyweather-Woods, an ordained minister and a professor in the Department of Black Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, summed up the contentiousness and controversy by saying, “There’s enough mess to go around. This is a vicious game being played, OK? I’m so tired of this conniving, back-stabbing when it ain’t necessary.”
It doesn’t stop there, Calloway’s embroiled in legal disputes with Tibbs, who had him evicted from one of his mother’s properties. A March 25 Probate Court hearing before Judge Samuel Caniglia considered his motion to remove her as his mother’s guardian-conservator. “Her performance as guardian-conservator has been subpar all the way,” Calloway said. “This whole business with the museum was not necessary. One of the problems with her is she shoots from the hip a lot. She doesn’t do her research.”
Tibbs challenged the deed to the museum building, contending a clause in the title Bertha and James Calloway signed over to the non-profit Great Plains Black Museum Archives and Interpretive Center, Inc. requires the structure revert back to Bertha Calloway’s ownership should it stop being used as a museum. In her brief, Tibbs asserted the building no longer filled that function. Jim Calloway contested her arguments in a brief filed by his attorney William Gallup. In a January 17 trial in Douglas County District Court, Judge Robert Burkhard heard testimony from witnesses on both sides. His decision found that while the institution “may have been somewhat loosely operated as a corporation…the building and the property…had always been used as a museum…possibly somewhat sporadically at times…but that does not mean that it ceased to be used as a museum.”
According to Tibbs, who said she represents the best interests of her client, “The decision is that the museum is an operational museum, so maybe it is, but nobody else in the community knows that. The building’s not been open. I can’t get in. Nobody can. You cannot go to that place, open the door and go inside to see an exhibit, and you haven’t been able to do that for some time. Ask anybody.” Tibbs said she’s not sure what her next move, if any, will be. “I do know it is unfortunate that it all came down to this. I think Jim (Calloway) is trying to do the best he can with what he has, but he just won’t let it go. Maybe I just won’t let it go.”
Even if Tibbs’ challenge had been upheld, Calloway said his mother’s Medicaid nursing home credit, which limits personal assets, may have forced the sale of the building. Whoever retains title to it, he said, would be stuck with huge liabilities. Meanwhile, Tibbs said she had investors lined up to purchase the building and/or pay for repairs in the event she gained control of it.
Calloway sees the decision as opening the door for the museum to have a fresh start in the building he and his mother fought so hard to save. “I’m happy with the way things turned out,” he said, noting its loss “would break my mother’s heart. She’s got a lot of sentimental attachment to the building. It does have a lot of historical significance.”
That fresh start may come in the form of a partnership with the UNO Department of Black Studies, where professor Larry Menyweather-Woods is brokering an association between the university and the museum for UNO to provide professional and student services. He feels “the uniqueness” of the museum and its emphasis on blacks in the Midwest affords scholars like himself and his colleagues a research boon and their expertise, in turn, can benefit the museum.
“We have a great deal of interest in being able to work with that museum,” said UNO College of Arts and Sciences Dean Sheldon Hendricks. “Many of the materials in their archives have not been cataloged or otherwise gone over for historical value. Our historians are particularly interested in getting a look at it. And we also see it as a great opportunity for our students to have both a service learning experience and an experience working directly with historically significant artifacts.”
Calloway, too, sees it as a win-win proposition. He welcomes the chance to put the collection in “responsible hands” and he embraces UNO’s “passion for history.”
“I hope the museum can get back on its feet and become something we can be proud of,” Vicky Parks said.
Tibbs said where “nobody’s” been willing to work with Calloway in light of the museum’s problems, “maybe they will now. I don’t know. UNO’s name would lend more credibility. Clearly, that would lead the community to feel comfortable.”
None of this changes the fact there’s still no money for repairs to the museum’s century-old building. UNO is adamant about not committing any funds to the museum. Menyweather-Woods said UNO’s involvement is not tied to the museum continuing to be housed in the building, adding there are plenty of “campuses that would be excited to have it.” Even Calloway suggests the structure is not a must for the museum’s future, saying it could just as easily “continue on” elsewhere and that “other locations might be more suitable” and “make better business sense.”
While Calloway said engineers’ reports confirm the structure “is salvageable and worth saving,” he also fears the city may condemn it if something isn’t done soon.
Others view the recent court decision as validation that Calloway’s remained, as Omaha photojournalist and museum supporter Rudy Smith put it, “true to his mother” by keeping the museum alive, if even on little more than a wish and a prayer. “It should be seen as a redeeming part of his integrity,” Menyweather-Woods said. “He’s always argued the same position. He’s always insisted it was operating as a museum. So, I think that says a lot right there.”
The saga of the museum’s plight, from lawsuits to funding woes to mismanaged assets, sends the wrong message to funders, who see an irresponsible institution that’s “out of control,” said Rudy Smith.
The Calloways have in some ways been their own worst enemies by publicly calling out Omaha for its stingy support and by rashly announcing makeovers, expansions, capital campaigns and board reorganizations without firm plans and follow through. Nothing’s ever come of these pronouncements except mistrust and acrimony.
The museum’s 30-year life has always been one of struggle. Part of the struggle stems from the Calloways’ wary, insular, defensive posture that’s valued protecting their independence above all else. They simply will not cow-tow to or play ball with the big shots. Admirable as that maverick streak may be, it’s also alienated the museum and cost it valuable allies. Taken together with its lack of a professional staff and its incomplete accountings, questions and suspicions are bound arise.
It’s no wonder then, as Jim Calloway noted, “There’s always been some sort of conflict with the city on funding.” His mother managed all aspects of the museum’s business, including the books, and since her illness there’s been no one to pick up the slack. Few outsiders have been brought into this inner circle.
“She’s always been very leery of having certain types of individuals involved in the operation. She’s never been one who goes out to cocktail parties or fancy dinners. That’s not who she is and that’s not who I am, either. She’s always been more interested in getting grassroots individuals involved. Unfortunately, the powers that be like to see some substantial, high profile figures on your board. They want you to change to their ways, so she’s steered clear of them,” Calloway said.
According to Rudy Smith, “She did not want the museum to fall into the hands of the corporate community. She was concerned if other people took it over the black community would lose treasures and no longer have access to their own history. It could be rewritten, retold, sold and maligned. Bert’s always felt that way. She told me she always wanted it in the hands of black people.” He added that the resources required for restoring the museum may necessitate bringing on board “people outside the black community that can do that.”
Bertha Calloway turned inward when she felt “betrayed” by a series of dealings with the suit-and-tie set who reneged on promises, said Rudy Smith. A fiasco with a book she co-authored on African-American history in Nebraska, along with other imbroglios, embittered her. “That’s why she became somewhat of a recluse and hermit and would not let anybody close to her. A lot of opportunities were lost because of betrayal and lack of trust and stubbornness.” Menyweather-Woods said she rejected proposals that not only could have financed a new facility, unburdening the museum of its albatross of a building, but strengthened the board, supplementing or replacing the current roster of cronies.
Alonzo Smith, a former consultant to the museum, said both the strength and weakness of the GPBHM is the grassroots mentality Bertha Calloway instilled and that Jim Calloway perpetuated.
“She’s not a museum professional. She’s not a curator. She’s not an archivist. She’s not an arts administrator. She’s not a historian. But she has a love on a subject and she has a love for people in the community,” said Alonzo Smith, who collaborated with her on the 1998 book An Illustrated History of African-Americans in Nebraska. “She really took it and made it into a community institution. It was a wonderful community institution. But she’s a strong-minded lady who found it difficult to work with other people. She would listen and say, ‘Thank you very much, but I’m going to go ahead and do what I’m going to do.’” I even put her in touch with a group called the African-American Museums Association. They do a needs assessment, which she really could have used to really get some big time grant money, but she didn’t want to relinquish financial and administrative control to a board.”
He said a reluctance to form alliances or share governance “is not just an African-American thing. It happens with community-family museums all over the country.” While Smith admires Jim Calloway’s loyalty to “his mom in trying to take care of her and the museum,” he says, “it’s beyond his capacity. He can’t handle it. It’s a sad story. That museum was her life’s work and to see it decline the way it has…”
Rudy Smith doesn’t blame Jim Calloway for spoiling his mother’s dream. He faults a larger culprit, saying, “The community failed her.”
Despite all the headaches and bad feelings, Jim Calloway doesn’t regret his museum odyssey. “The experience of being with my mother during that 10 years is something I would never trade. I just wouldn’t. Because we got to know each other so well during that period of time, it was worth it to me,” he said.
He looks forward to the day when the museum is back on course. With UNO as a potential steward, he expects to oversee a transition that will ensure: the collection is cataloged; the research materials are accessible; the displays refurbished and open year-round for viewing; and the museum’s good name restored. “After everything gets in place with the university, we’re going to lobby real hard and it’s going to be for a lot more than $100,000. We’ve got a lot of time to make up for. With different people steering it, I’m sure they’re going to have some progress. The city knows how important that museum is to the community.”
One thing there’s consensus on about the museum is that its founder, Bertha Calloway, is a community pillar whose dream should be fulfilled.
“We have no intention of forgetting Bertha Calloway and the members of the Negro Historical Society who put that place like it was,” said Menyweather-Woods.
As the antagonist in all this, attorney Karen Tibbs said, “At the end of the day my responsibility is that her dream and her money be realized. Bertha Calloway’s. Not Bonita Calloway’s. Not Jim Calloway’s. I’m not going away.”
No one knows more than Jim Calloway what the burden of that dream has cost. “More than a dream, really, it’s a mandate from my mother.”
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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