NAACP to keep national headquarters in Baltimore, officials say

The NAACP has decided to keep its national headquarters in Baltimore, as the nation's oldest civil rights organization undergoes a local leadership changeover with the resignation of prominent activist Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham.

The NAACP's national board passed on potential moves to Washington, Montgomery County and other sites in downtown Baltimore — and instead chose to stay in the Seton Business Park in Northwest Baltimore, officials with the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's quasi-public development arm, announced Thursday.

Meanwhile, Cheatham stepped down as president of the city chapter after nearly six years at the helm to pursue elective office. Ellis L. Staten Jr., the chapter's first vice president, will serve as interim president until branch elections in November. Cheatham, 60, an outspoken, highly visible leader, said he resigned late last month so he could focus on a run this fall for the Democratic State Central Committee.

Cheatham said his years at the helm of the city NAACP, a volunteer position, were grueling but rewarding. "It's a very tough unpaid job," he said. "When people had problems, they would come to us before they even came to their ministers."

Staten said that Cheatham's departure from the city branch would not mean a change in vision, goals or strategy. "We'll be just as visible as we were when Doc Cheatham was around," he said.

The national NAACP decided this summer to call off its search for a new headquarters, BDC president M. Jay Brodie and others said at a board meeting. The decision keeps about 80 NAACP employees in the city and means that Baltimore retains a close tie to the civil rights organization, which marked its 100th anniversary last year.

Brodie said he's "delighted" the NAACP is staying in Baltimore.

It's "a win for the city," said Phil Croskey, director of development for the BDC's west team.

The decision came as welcome news at the NAACP's Baltimore branch, which operates independently from the national headquarters but sometimes works on joint projects or seeks assistance from the central operation.

"At the Baltimore City branch, we take pride in [the city] hosting the nation's top civil rights organization and look forward to continuing to work with them," Staten said. "It's a relief for us to know that we're going to keep them here. We wanted them to stay here in Baltimore."

Staten said he heard about a final decision on the headquarters Thursday. NAACP chief operating officer Roger Vann could not be reached Thursday.

In a statement, Gov. Martin O'Malley said: "I'm extremely pleased and grateful that the NAACP has decided to keep its national headquarters in Maryland's largest city, where it has been for nearly 25 years. Baltimore — complete with its rich history and diversity — is the appropriate venue for the home of the nation's most prestigious and respected civil rights organization."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement that she was "thrilled" the NAACP had chosen to keep its headquarters in Baltimore.

The organization's work is "an important part of the city's legacy," Rawlings-Blake said. The decision to remain in Baltimore is a "fitting tribute" to the city's civil rights heroes, including Thurgood Marshall and Juanita Jackson Mitchell, she said.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has had its headquarters in Baltimore's Seton Business Park since 1986 and expressed a desire to move to a new location several years ago. In 2006, under then-chief executive Bruce Gordon, it announced plans to relocate to Washington, but the move never took place.

The organization now has a different chief executive, Benjamin Jealous, and again had been exploring options for a new headquarters with about 30,000 square feet of space and easy access to a train station, airport and Capitol Hill. Besides Baltimore, it considered locations in Washington and Silver Spring.

Last year, as part of a push to persuade NAACP leaders to keep the national headquarters in Baltimore, BDC officials compiled a list of more than 15 locations in Baltimore's central business district that could meet the organization's space needs and visited four of them with NAACP personnel. They also offered a $500,000 grant to help cover relocation costs if the organization agreed to stay in Baltimore.

Brodie and Croskey told BDC board members Thursday that the agency has worked under three different mayors to encourage NAACP officials to keep their national headquarters in Baltimore.

Brodie said one of the factors behind the NAACP's decision is that it owns the current headquarters on Mount Hope Drive. The organization had wanted to sell that property to move to a new location but has been unable to find a buyer for the building. Now the organization is looking at ways to renovate instead, Croskey and Brodie said.

Croskey said NAACP directors made their decision in July and that it was not contingent on receiving a "financial package" from the city of Baltimore.

While the decision puts to rest speculation about the national organization's future home, Staten praised Cheatham's tenure at the local chapter.

"Doc Cheatham has taken this branch to new heights where it had not been for some time," said Staten, noting that the chapter has been voted the best branch in the country in three of the past four years. "He made tremendous strides. Part of my job is to continue what Doc has done."

He added: "Our vision is to bring labor, churches and the community in as one to work for the common goal of civil liberties for the people of Baltimore City."

Staten credited Cheatham and other leaders with "getting the community engaged in the things going on around them, getting them more involved in the process and in what we need to do together to make Baltimore City a better place to live."

Rawlings-Blake, in a statement, described Cheatham as a "persistent and passionate advocate for civil rights issues."

During his six years with the NAACP, Cheatham said he had grown increasingly interested in holding political office and he was concerned about his district, one of the nation's poorest. He said he had decided against running for state delegate because of conflicts with his job as an elections specialist with the National Labor Relations Board.

But he said he has his eye on City Hall next year and was contemplating a run for either the 11th District seat — which is currently held by Councilman William H. Cole IV — or the council presidency.

"I know that I'm very well qualified to be president of the City Council," said Cheatham, adding that the current president, Bernard C. "Jack" Young, is a "good friend."

Staten said the current first vice president of the Baltimore NAACP, Tessa Hill Aston, has declared candidacy for chapter president in elections scheduled for late November. Staten said he would not run but plans to return to the job of first vice president.