Calling the nation's capital "the center of the universe in which we work," the chairman of the NAACP said yesterday that he is pushing to relocate the headquarters of the nation's oldest civil rights organization from Northwest Baltimore to Washington.
Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said in an interview that although the organization has not bought property in Washington, a move is all but definite.
When the 97-year-old organization came to Baltimore in 1986 from New York City, it was greeted with fanfare from local politicians and a city parade.
"This is not something that will happen quickly, but it is something that is going to happen," said Bond, who would not offer a timetable for the move.
"It has nothing to do with the city of Baltimore. We love the city of Baltimore, except its location. It's not located in Washington, and Washington is where we need to be."
Nevertheless, Bond's determination to leave Baltimore caught city officials and NAACP stalwarts off guard.
Mayor Martin O'Malley pledged to fight to keep the NAACP in Baltimore, and others lamented that losing the organization would be a blow to city residents who take pride in having one of the most prominent organizations in civil rights in their backyard.
"We are going to do everything we can to aggressively lay a retention package on the table of the NAACP," O'Malley said, adding that he had left personal messages with Bond and Bruce S. Gordon, the NAACP's president and chief executive officer.
The mayor offered to immediately travel to New York, where Gordon lives, to discuss the options. "We're excited about laying a package on the table and really want to do everything we possibly can to keep [the NAACP in Baltimore," he said.
Bond, who lives in Washington, has made no secret over the years of his desire to move the organization closer to the center of national politics and activism. But his most recent pronouncement, reported first by American Urban Radio Networks on Thursday night, surprised even the NAACP leadership.
"Sure, when we moved to Baltimore there were some who wanted to move to Washington," said Hazel N. Dukes, a member of the organization's 64-member board and president of its New York state conference. "But I don't know, do they have a space picked out in Washington?"
O'Malley's administration, also surprised, immediately began discussions to determine what kind of incentives the city could offer in an attempt to keep the nonprofit in Baltimore.
City officials say NAACP leaders have previously expressed interest in moving elsewhere in Baltimore. M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said the city would work to address the NAACP's needs.
"We're keen on keeping them," Brodie said. "We're on it."
In making their case, city leaders noted Baltimore's role in the civil rights movement and the history the city has had with the NAACP.
City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., whose grandfather, Clarence Mitchell Jr., was one of the NAACP's most powerful Washington lobbyists and a national figure in the movement, said losing the organization would be a huge blow.
"The NAACP has a long history in Baltimore, and it would be a shame if they would move out," said Mitchell, adding that his grandfather bought him his life membership in the organization shortly after he was born. "Then it becomes just like any other organization in Washington, D.C."
O'Malley said, "We are a city that is proud of its civil rights history and the courageous men and women who have fought to make America a more fair and just place for people of color and all Americans."
Bond said he would listen to the city's best offer. But when asked what officials could do to keep the NAACP in Baltimore, he replied, "Move Baltimore to the D.C. city limit."
Sources within the organization, who refused to be identified because they are not authorized to publicly discuss the group's plans, confirmed that the NAACP has hired a real estate agent to market the Mount Hope Drive property and identify locations for it in Washington.
Despite the group's well publicized financial challenges in recent years, Bond said, the organization has the funds to cover the higher cost of real estate in Washington. He said he had spoken with Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams within the past couple of months about the prospect of a move.
"He said, 'We'd love to have you,'" Bond said.
Sharon Gang, a spokeswoman in Williams' office, would not confirm those discussions but said, "I'm certain that [the mayor] and his staff would be helpful in any way to the NAACP if they would move to the district."
Experts on civil rights said a move to Washington would give the NAACP a stronger presence and possibly greater influence on political decision-makers than if it stayed in Baltimore.
"In some ways this is historic," said Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, College Park. "There's nothing like Washington; it's the seat of power."
If the NAACP finds a space in Washington, it will be the organization's second major move. Founded in New York in 1909, the NAACP stayed in the city until its move to Baltimore, renting property in Manhattan until rising rents sent it to Brooklyn in 1983.
Cash-strapped and looking for a home to call its own, leaders sought cities with better deals. Led by Baltimore native Enolia McMillan, the organization's national president at the time, Baltimore officials offered a deal including more than $1.1 million in state and federal grants to help purchase a five-story brick building and its pine-covered campus in Baltimore.
Members held bake sales and sold $2 "freedom buttons" to cover the cost of the move and some of the renovations to the building, then the Marian Retreat House of the Seton Institute.
Once a retirement home for nuns, the 50,000-square-foot headquarters contains a large sanctuary with dark wood paneling and intricate stained-glass windows. Called the Roy Wilkins Auditorium, it is the setting for staff meetings and news conferences.
The move to Baltimore had the support of Mayor William Donald Schaefer and City Councilman Kweisi Mfume, who later served in Congress, then became the NAACP's president and CEO. He resigned in late 2004 after nine years and is now a candidate for the U.S. Senate.
Not everyone supported the move. Half of the New York staff refused to relocate, and some feared that the organization's national profile would diminish once it was associated with Baltimore.
It wasn't long after Mfume took over the helm of the organization that Bond began pushing for relocating to Washington. Mfume, a Baltimore native, resisted, and Bond couldn't muster the board votes to approve a move.
Things are different now, said Bond. The board supports heading to Washington, he said, and will back the decision. The group's national convention is scheduled for Washington this summer.
"Of course, we don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, and we understand people's allegiance to their hometown," said Bond. "But this is a business decision. And our business is with the federal government and our partners in Washington."
Sources within the national organization said some staff members are concerned. Most of the approximately 115 staff members live in Baltimore.
Bond said Gordon discussed the group's push to move to Washington at a staff meeting two months ago. Gordon could not be reached for comment yesterday. NAACP spokesman John C. White said he was on vacation abroad.
Longtime NAACP supporters said they hope its leaders will reconsider the move.
"With the aid of city fathers, we brought them such a sweet deal. Everyone was so elated and sort of pounded on their chest and said, 'See there. See there,'" said Raymond V. Haysbert, former head of Parks Sausage Co. and a longtime leader in Baltimore's black business community.
Haysbert said the NAACP brings Baltimore attention from tourists and business and civil rights leaders that it would not otherwise receive.
"We are close to Washington as it is," he said. "Them being there doesn't improve their lot. But as far as the impact on the city, the loss would be great."
To hear Julian Bond's radio interview, go to baltimoresun.com/naacp
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Founded: In 1909 by a multiracial group of activists including Ida Wells-Barnett, W.E.B. DuBois and Mary White Ovington to fight racial discrimination. Originally based New York City.
Baltimore legacy: In 1986, the headquarters was moved to Northwest Baltimore.
Financial incentives: Baltimore officials put together $1.1 million in grants to defray the NAACP's $2.6 million cost of purchasing and renovating a five-story building.
Employees: About 115 people at the national headquarters, the office for President and Chief Executive Officer Bruce S. Gordon.