NAACP's Baltimore branch poised to choose new president in special election

The Baltimore branch of the NAACP will choose a new president in a special election this weekend, a move members of the legendary civil rights organization hope will mark the start of a more stable phase for the local chapter after months of contention and turmoil.

Gerald Stansbury, president of the NAACP Maryland State Conference, said the election for the historic chapter, scheduled for Saturday at the Greater Baltimore Urban League, will start at 9 a.m., when branch members in attendance will be permitted to nominate candidates for the position. Once a slate of candidates is settled, members in attendance will vote, and the candidate with the most votes will be president for a standard two-year term, Stansbury said.

Five other officers — three vice presidents, a secretary and a treasurer — will be elected using the same procedure.

Stansbury said he views the election as an opportunity for the 106-year-old chapter to begin reclaiming a status it once enjoyed as one of the organization’s premier local offices.

“Baltimore has historically been one of the NAACP’s strongest, most vibrant branches, and by the end of the day Saturday, we hope to have chosen leaders who will get it operating with the clarity of purpose we know it is capable of,” said Stansbury, who has served as temporary branch administrator since last October.

The Baltimore chapter was founded in 1912. Pioneering civil rights activist Lillie May Carroll Jackson became the NAACP’s first female branch president in 1935 when she took over leadership of the Baltimore chapter. Membership in the branch topped 18,000 at its peak, one of the nation’s highest.

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, namesake of the branch’s building on West 26th Street, was elected branch president in 1969 and served for 15 years before being tapped as the national NAACP’s first female president.

Membership dwindled over the years, as it did in other locations. The Baltimore chapter now has about 1,000 members.

The turmoil of the past several years has taken a toll. Two branch presidents left office prematurely within the past 10 months, a record some have called a sign of longer-term instability.

Tessa Hill-Aston, who won four consecutive presidential elections, resigned last October amid complaints of mismanagement and in the aftermath of a bitterly contested 2016 election. Hill-Aston disputes any suggestion her leadership contributed to instability, citing a record of years of work helping Baltimoreans with legal and eviction issues and the successful NAACP national convention she helped bring to the city last year.

“We left things in very good shape in the branch,” Hill-Aston said. “If others weren’t prepared to do the work and dropped the ball after we left, I’m afraid that’s not our problem.”

Nine months later, the national office suspended her successor, Ronald Flamer, because of “activities, behavior, and conduct [that] were detrimental and inimical to the NAACP,” according to a letter national NAACP president Derrick Johnson wrote to the Baltimore branch. Flamer said his suspension centered on a dispute over checks he wrote for expenses and a spat regarding ownership of the branch’s building.

The NAACP national board of directors voted last October to place the branch under Stansbury’s control, giving him final say on expenditures and local policy matters. Former Vice President Sandra Almond-Cooper has been serving as interim chapter president.

The incumbent president would have faced re-election this November, but the national office called for a special election given the tumult and asked Stansbury to oversee it. It will be held at the Urban League headquarters on Orchard Street, the site of the NAACP Maryland State Conference offices.

Members in good standing as of April 1 who can produce the signatures of three nominators might become candidates Saturday, and anyone who renewed membership before Sept. 6 can vote.

Two longtime members have announced that they will seek the top office: the political action chairman of the NAACP Maryland State Conference, Kobi Little, and former city schools educator and onetime city housing official Michael Eugene Johnson. Johnson worked under mayors Kurt Schmoke, Martin O’Malley and Sheila Dixon.

Though both agree change is needed, they bring different backgrounds and advocate contrasting approaches.

Little, 47, cites his experience advocating for the NAACP in the Maryland General Assembly and says his efforts at recruiting this year alone have brought more than 100 members to the branch.

If elected, he said in an interview, he would lay out a full vision for the branch’s work, establish a budget and fundraising goals, schedule town-hall meetings to hear residents’ ideas and — recognizing that “membership is the lifeblood of any organization” — lead a citywide membership drive.

Building on the branch’s “outstanding history” would not be a question of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” but one of “turning the page” on a difficult past few months and moving ahead, he said.

Johnson, 63, disagrees.

“The local branch needs an enema,” he said.

Johnson believes the chapter’s leadership has placed too much emphasis in recent years on maintaining close relationships with powerful players and not enough on attacking problems at the grassroots level. He said the NAACP has a duty to hold the school system, the housing department, the police department and other public entities accountable for their performances. He said that means having branch leaders attend meetings, take part in debates and ruffle feathers when necessary.

“I don’t have to hang out with the governor, the mayor or the police commissioner,” Johnson said. “Sometimes you have to have an agitator. We can’t sit here and pretend that racism, housing disparities, and problems in the schools don’t exist. Someone has to be able to come out and talk about these problems rather than saying, ‘I’ll meet them at the party and talk to them over cocktails.’ ”

Stansbury said elections typically draw most of a branch’s members, and that theOrchard Street United Methodist Church, which is adjacent to the Urban League, would be used to handle overflow crowds.

Baltimore Sun reporter Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs contributed to this article.

jonpitts@baltsun.com

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