Stripped of power, Baltimore NAACP branch seeks a 'refresh'

The Baltimore NAACP, for decades one of the civil rights group’s most prominent and influential branches, has been stripped of its power by the national organization pending a special election this fall being held after a series of internal controversies.

The NAACP national board of directors voted in October to place the 106-year-old branch under the control of Gerald Stansbury, president of the NAACP’s Maryland State Conference, and removed the local president this summer.

As temporary administrator, Stansbury “assumes overall responsibility” for the branch’s operations and has the final say on all expenditures and local policy matters, national NAACP President Derrick Johnson wrote in a letter to the city branch obtained by The Baltimore Sun. Stansbury says a special election will be held in September or October to elect a new local president and other board members, and the chapter will regain local authority sometime after that.

Current and former members of the branch said in interviews that the appointment of Stansbury is just one sign of the branch’s tumultuous state over the last year.

Tessa Hill-Aston, a vocal president for seven years, stepped down in October amid complaints that she was mismanaging the branch. The national office suspended her successor, Ronald Flamer, from the organization on July 14, according to another letter from Johnson, who wrote that Flamer’s “activities, behavior, and conduct were detrimental and inimical to the NAACP.”

Flamer says he was wrongfully suspended over two checks he wrote for NAACP expenses and a spat regarding the ownership of the branch’s building in Charles Village.

“It’s embarrassing,” Flamer said of being removed after decades of involvement with the NAACP. “All I want is to go to a hearing and get my name cleared. I’m retired, but I was giving this thing 100 percent of my time. We were trying to right this organization.”

Another sign of the branch’s dysfunction came in January, when Flamer announced that former mayoral spokesman Anthony McCarthy would become the branch’s first executive director since 1995. But the local branch had not received permission from the national office to name an executive director, and McCarthy never assumed the position.

Flamer has requested a hearing before the national NAACP’s board of directors to appeal his removal. Meanwhile, several Baltimore branch members have resigned from the local board, including McCarthy.

McCarthy said the appointment of Stansbury as administrator “has left the local branch absolutely powerless.”

“The NAACP has unfortunately been missing in action and that’s because of chaos in the local branch,” McCarthy said.

A spokeswoman for the national NAACP, which has its headquarters in Northwest Baltimore, declined to comment for this article and referred questions to Stansbury.

Stansbury said the special election will give the branch — the second branch ever formed — a much-needed reset. Members are undergoing training to ensure they follow the organization’s bylaws, he said.

“The Baltimore branch needs a refresh,” he said. “We’re looking for a renewed commitment.”

Stansbury said he wasn’t concerned about the board resignations. He said the branch is “moving right ahead and other folks are stepping up and doing what they’re supposed to do.”

With Stansbury’s approval, Sandra Almond-Cooper, a branch vice president and Mondawmin Neighborhood Improvement Association leader, took over last month as interim president of the chapter. Last week, she issued her first public statement as president, condemning two police officers’ actions in a viral video that shows one officer repeatedly beating a man.

Almond-Cooper will serve as president until the fall election. She and other officials said the branch remains focused on its work: registering people to vote, holding police accountable for abuse and deepening the NAACP’s ties to the community, particularly young people.

“Our first priority is reorganizing and bringing the community together in Baltimore City so we can work together and be positive and transparent,” Almond-Cooper said. “We have to develop a relationship with the community — a trust — when we have this much turnover.”

She emphasized that the branch continues to host monthly meetings and is active in the community. But the state of the city branch remains painful to some Baltimoreans who remember its previous influence.

Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, who served as branch president from 2005 to 2009, said he has been “troubled” by what he’s observed in recent years.

“We had a hell of a branch, and where has it gone?” he said.

“It should be the frontrunner in addressing crime and violence, and for almost the last 10 years, it’s been missing in action,” Cheatham said. “The silence of what was considered to be the most prominent branch in America has been deafening.”

Those who work with the branch say they are inspired by its powerful history under the leadership of Lillie May Carroll Jackson, who served as the branch president from 1935 to 1970. She presided over a membership of more than 18,000 in the branch’s heyday, forcing businesses to hire black employees through the use of boycotts. Her daughter, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, the first black woman to practice law in Maryland, served as legal counsel to the branch and challenged the segregation of schools, restaurants and parks.

Enolia P. McMillan, after whom the branch’s building on West 26th Street is named, was elected branch president in 1969 and served for 15 years until being tapped as the national NAACP’s first female president in 1984. She played a key role in moving the organization's national headquarters from New York to Baltimore two years later.

The Baltimore branch used to compete with Detroit to see which had the largest membership and was “at the forefront of the civil rights efforts for decades,” said Larry Gibson, a University of Maryland law professor and longtime observer of Baltimore culture and politics.

Jonathan McKinney, director of the NAACP Mid-Atlantic region, said the Baltimore branch remains active, noting that it co-hosted an event this month at the NAACP headquarters with Parkland, Fla., students taking part in anti-gun violence efforts.

“It’s not dead,” McKinney said of the branch. “It’s just going through a lot of challenges and really trying to bounce back from some of the issues that we had.”

G. I. Johnson, branch president from 1998 to 2004 and a member of the executive committee, said the branch is in poor financial shape and has not been a prominent player in the city in recent years. He said the national office hurt the branch by not allowing it to make its own decisions.

“There are things that are going on in Baltimore that we should’ve been involved in that we just weren’t involved in,” Johnson said.

Johnson is hopeful, though, that there are enough hard-working members of the board to keep the branch alive and return it to its historical prominence.

“We’ve all committed ourselves to work diligently to do what needs to be done for Baltimore City,” he said. “That’s our focus: Baltimore City.”

nbogelburroughs@baltsun.com

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